Pilot, Poet, Scuba Diver, Lefty – the non-Orthodox Rabbi Bringing Unorthodox Views to City Hall

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Rabbi Dov Haiyun in the auditorium at the Haifa Theatre, December 2, 2018. The deputy mayor is now chairman of the board at Israel's oldest municipal theater.
Rabbi Dov Haiyun in the auditorium at the Haifa Theatre, December 2, 2018. The deputy mayor is now chairman of the board at Israel's oldest municipal theater.Credit: Rami Shllush

If Rabbi Dov Haiyun has his way, Haifa will host a first-of-its-kind magic festival this coming Passover.

It goes well with the theme of the Jewish holiday, he tells his audience – senior staffers at the municipal theater company. After all, Passover is a celebration of the “signs and wonders” God performed during the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt.

It takes a rabbi, they’re all thinking to themselves.

This is Haiyun’s first week in office as deputy mayor of Haifa and he’s holding an initial round of meetings with the city’s cultural bigwigs. It’s an opportunity to throw out ideas he himself is the first to concede qualify as wild. “And I urge you to go wild as well,” he tells his interlocutors. “What better time than this?”

The first non-Orthodox rabbi to ever serve in Israeli local government, Haiyun’s assigned portfolio is arts and culture, with the Haifa Theatre – the oldest municipal theater company in Israel – one of his chief responsibilities. (His new job includes serving as chairman of its board.)

Rabbi Dov Haiyun waiting in line to meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on July 19, 2018 – just hours after he had been briefly detained by the police for performing unsanctioned weddings.Credit: Emil Salman

And the magic festival isn’t the only unconventional idea he has up his sleeve. Haiyun’s dream, he confides to those gathered in the boardroom, is to create an Andalusian orchestra in Haifa, similar to the successful ensemble in Ashdod. In this case, though, it would also include Arab musicians to reflect Haifa’s mixed Jewish-Arab nature.

He also envisions an annual international conference dedicated to shared society – a way to cash in, he points out, on Haifa’s reputation as a role model in Jewish-Arab coexistence.

As the meeting draws to a close, and since nobody else has drummed up the courage to address the elephant in the room, Haiyun takes it upon himself to do just that. Pointing to his big bushy beard and the kippa on his head, he says: “I know you’re all wondering if whether having someone like me in this job means everything is going to close down here on Shabbat. So put your fears to rest. Whatever was opened on Shabbat will remain open on Shabbat – and just because I prefer spending Shabbat morning in synagogue doesn’t mean I have less respect for those of you here who prefer spending Shabbat morning at the theater or in a café.

“And if I happen to be on my way to synagogue and see you walking with a stroller in the direction of a café on a Saturday morning,” he adds, “you can count on me to open the door for you.”

National sensation

In October’s municipal elections, challenger Einat Kalisch Rotem won a landslide victory in Haifa, becoming the first woman to ever serve as mayor of a major Israeli city. Haiyun, 56, one of her supporters from the start, headed the left-wing Meretz slate. Under a rotation agreement with the local branch of the Communist Party, he will serve as deputy mayor for half a term – one of five deputy mayors currently serving in Israel’s third largest city.

Haiyun had previously served as rabbi of Congregation Moriah, one of the country’s oldest Conservative synagogues. During the 10 years he filled the position, he rose to prominence as an activist in local interfaith dialogue efforts.

Outside of Haifa, though, most Israelis had never of Haiyun until this past summer. But then, the police came knocking at his door at 5:30 A.M. on July 19, and virtually overnight he became a national sensation. His alleged crime: Performing weddings outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.

Under a law passed in 2013, rabbis conducting traditional Jewish weddings in Israel not sanctioned by the Rabbinate could face jail terms of up to two years. Haiyun’s detention was the first time this law was ever tested. However, after a few hours of questioning, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered police to suspend their investigation.

Rabbi Dov Haiyun backstage at the Haifa Theatre, December 2, 2018. "There needs to be more going on to get visitors to stick around" in the city, he says.Credit: Rami Shllush

The damage had already been done, though. The incident sparked fierce outrage in the Jewish world and was cited as further evidence of the Israeli government’s religious intolerance. (Haiyun helped fan the flames by writing a Facebook post at the police station, in which he declared that “Iran is already here!!!”)

Having previously toyed with the idea of venturing into politics, Haiyun understood his newfound fame provided an ideal opportunity for him to test the waters. Within a matter of weeks, he announced his decision to run in the municipal elections as head of the Meretz slate in the northern city.

Haiyun’s name still doesn’t appear outside his office on the fourth floor of Haifa City Hall, but he has already moved some of his prized possessions inside. They’re currently stacked on his desk, waiting to be hung on the walls. There’s a photo of Janusz Korczak – the director of the Warsaw Ghetto orphanage who accompanied his orphans to the Treblinka death camp and who has long served, Haiyun says, as his inspiration and role model. There’s an artsy photograph he took of a canal in Venice, blown up to poster size (Haiyun is a photography enthusiast and says he dreams of holding a public exhibition of his work). And there’s a framed copy of his license to fly ultralight aircraft (another hobby).

He’s had a varied career, to say the least. Haiyun has authored six volumes of poetry (what better qualification, he says, for his current portfolio in the city?); served as editor of a periodical published by the kibbutz movement; ran his own publishing house; headed a boarding school for children with special needs; and taught classes in Bible and computing to high school students, before embarking on his current religious vocation.

Born and raised in Netanya, he has lived in Upper Nazareth, Kibbutz Ramat Rachel outside Jerusalem and an urban kibbutz in Beit Shemesh, before moving to Haifa in 2008 to take up his position at Congregation Moriah.

The son of working class immigrants from Tunisia, Haiyun grew up in what he describes as a “classic” traditional Sephardi home (referring to those descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were dispersed across Europe, North Africa and the Americas after the Inquisitions).

His high school years were spent in a boarding school for gifted boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it was there, at age 16, that he committed his first big act of rebellion: He removed his kippa and stopped laying tefillin in the morning.

He met his future wife, Zehavit, while serving as a counselor at a facility for children from dysfunctional homes, and they married soon after he completed his army service. They have two children – a boy and a girl.

Rabbi Dov Haiyun sifting through the ruins after a fire severely damaged Congregation Moriah in Haifa, November 2016. Some of Haiyun's Muslim friends helped repair the synagogue.Credit: Rami Shllush

About 15 years ago, Haiyun enrolled in a new institution that had begun ordaining “secular rabbis” in Israel. Of all places, it was here he discovered that he wasn’t as secular as he had always believed.

“I suddenly understood that this program wasn’t a good fit for me because I’m just not an atheist,” he says. So the kippa and tefillin went back on and Haiyun decided to continue his rabbinical studies, but in a different place: The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis in Israel.

Until recent years, the Conservative movement – and the Reform movement as well – was largely dominated by English-speaking immigrants to Israel. Although non-Orthodox Judaism is slowly starting to gain a foothold in the country, Conservative rabbis from a background like Haiyun’s are still a rare breed.

When people ask him how a nice Sephardi boy ended up becoming a Conservative rabbi – and they often do – his response is that they have it all wrong. “The Conservative movement has much more in common with classic Sephardic Judaism than Shas,” he says, referring to the ultra-Orthodox, right-wing political movement that has drawn wide support in recent decades among Sephardi voters. “After all, the Judaism I grew up with was more tolerant and much less rigid – much more like Conservative Judaism.”

Odd man out

Rotem’s surprise victory in the recent municipal election has been attributed, among other factors, to her success in drumming up support among the ultra-Orthodox in this city – long a beacon of Israeli secularism. Indeed, Haifa is the only majority-Jewish city in the country where public transportation operates on Shabbat. In exchange for their support in the election, Rotem invited the ultra-Orthodox parties to join her coalition in city hall.

The first meeting of the newly formed council, held last week, was an unusual gathering, as Haiyun recounts. “I could just see, from the looks on their faces, that the ultra-Orthodox city council members didn’t know what to make of me,” he says. “There I was, wearing a kippa on my head and sporting a beard just like them. I may even have had my tzitzit [a fringed undergarment worn by religious Jewish men] sticking out and, as I often do, I cited some talmudic passages when I spoke,” he relays. “But I’m clearly not one of them – I’m the guy from Meretz.”

He’s a relative newcomer to the party, though. For many years, Haiyun was a card-carrying member of the much bigger and more centrist Labor Party. He quit about a year ago, though, having reached the conclusion that the party no longer represented his values. The trigger was the resignation of Labor’s only Arab lawmaker, Zouheir Bahloul, from the Knesset and the response this elicited from new party leader Avi Gabbay, who essentially told the Arab MK: “Good riddance.”

“I wrote a letter to Gabbay explaining my decision to leave the party, but never heard back from him,” says Haiyun.

Although he describes his politics today as being “on the right side” of Meretz, Haiyun has been known to swing further left as well. In the 1990s, for example, he spent time in prison after refusing to serve in the occupied territories after being called up for reserve duty. “If I found myself in the similar situation today, I would act differently,” he admits.

Working together

In addition to photography, poetry and flying, Haiyun’s passions include scuba diving (he’s about to use his remaining vacation days from his rabbinical job to embark on a two-week trip to Mexico to do just that), sailing (he just received his skipper’s license) and running (he recently completed his first half marathon and is in training for his first 26-miler). In his spare time, he continues to officiate at non-Rabbinate-sanctioned weddings.

Haiyun hopes to use his new position as Haifa’s culture czar to bring much-needed tourism to the city. “The problem today is that people come, they visit the Bahai Gardens – which is the one big must in this city – and then they leave,” he says. “We have a wonderful film festival here every fall, but that’s not enough. There needs to be more going on to get visitors to stick around here.”

Is he concerned about having to work with Israel’s controversial culture minister, Miri Regev, who has tried to use her budget and authority to suppress criticism of the state? “We’ll have to learn to get along and work together,” he says.

Working together is clearly one of Haiyun’s mantras. Major fires that broke out in northern Israel in November 2016 left Congregation Moriah – Haifa’s only Conservative synagogue – in virtual ruins. Among those who volunteered to help restore and refurbish the synagogue were some of Haiyun’s Muslim friends and acquaintances. For this joint effort, “Haifa’s Interfaith Heroes,” as they were hailed, received the American Jewish Committee Unity Award last year.

Haiyun says that, unlike many of his fellow residents, he was not at all surprised when his Muslim neighbors reached out to lend a helping hand.

“When you sow love,” he says, “you reap love.” It’s a motto that will continue to guide him in his new vocation.

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