Departure of Stockholm Conservative Rabbi Stirs Community Debate

The dynamic and progressive rabbi David Lazar attracted new crowds but struggled to get along with established community members.

The Jewish Community of Stockholm and the leader of its largest congregation, David Lazar, are parting ways after failing to agree on terms for a new employment contract. The news last week stirred up heated debate in the community and beyond, prompting Facebook protest campaigns and a petition which has attracted nearly 400 signatories, with some suggesting Lazar was fired because he is too progressive for the community. But one prominent Swedish-Jewish academic withdrew his name from the petition, saying it had attracted people with "no Jewish connection whatsoever who are also ideological Israel-haters."

The 55-year-old, U.S.-born Lazar lived in Israel for over 30 years before joining the Stockholm community in 2010, with his wife Sascha. Ordained as a Conservative rabbi, he is a vocal proponent of LGBT rights and interfaith dialogue and was among the first rabbis to officiate gay weddings in Israel. In Sweden, Lazar has attracted new crowds to the community and to services at Stockholm's Great Synagogue. His supporters outside of the community have also praised him for his involvement in social justice issues and intercultural dialogue.

Yet his detractors say Lazar has also been a divisive force. During his three-year tenure, they say, the community has experienced turmoil and infighting, with other leaders in the community complaining that he is not a "team player."

Community representatives told Haaretz that Lazar has focused disproportionally on a small group of people and on high-profile issues while alienating veteran members and neglecting some key, but less glamorous, aspects of his job as a rabbi, like visiting the elderly and overseeing funerals.

"I have great respect for David Lazar," Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden, told Haaretz. "He is extremely charismatic and has put the Jewish community on the map in contexts that I have not reached and that is good for the Jews in Sweden…But we didn't hire a spokesman or an activist, we hired a rabbi."

Lazar, who has five daughters - three in Israel and two in California – first came to Stockholm to speak at a Limmud conference in 2009. At the time, the community had been trying to recruit a rabbi for three years. Still, Jewish life was thriving culturally and socially at institutions like the Jewish museum, theatre and film festival and at the Jewish school, summer camp and youth center. But a majority of the 4,500 members do not identify as religious and rarely set foot in the Conservative Great Synagogue or in the city's two Orthodox synagogues.

With the new rabbi came initiatives like Torah Treks, which are nature walks led by Lazar, and "intimate, meditative, musical kabbalat Shabbat services," where chairs are arranged in a semi-circle and guest musicians play classical, folk or rock music. Sometimes Lazar himself plays an African drum and occasionally there are long moments of silence. Lazar also initiated official Jewish community delegations in the Stockholm Gay Pride parade.

The Stockholm community had never experienced anything quite like it and now speculations are rife that Lazar's shake-up was too much to bear for the community leadership.

Korosi-Posner categorically denies this. She told Haaretz that the community has been at the forefront of defending gay marriage in Sweden and has long engaged in intercultural dialogue.

Lazar himself is pleased with the work he has done in Sweden. "My feeling is that the vast majority of the Jewish community of Stockholm is quite happy with the way I'm being a rabbi," he told Haaretz. But he also admitted that there have been some challenges.

"The opposition I've found is two-fold," he said. "First, it's among the more traditional parts of the community. For them, a successful liberal rabbi is a challenge…They don't tell it to my face. I hear it second-hand. The second type of opposition is from people who tell me they are unhappy with specific changes I've brought to the Great Synagogue. To my mind, they are very slight changes. To their mind they are changes and therefore challenging."

As examples, Lazar mentioned that he discourages calling Cohens and Levis to the Torah for the first two aliyot since "it's not egalitarian," and that he explains Torah readings in English during services and that he occasionally replaces formal sermons with study sessions.

But Posner-Korosi said the real problem is that Lazar "creates unnecessary conflicts" by making decisions without consulting the community he has been hired to represent.

Lazar disagrees. "I see it very differently," he said. "I am constantly consulting my colleagues - the other employees of the Jewish Community - as well as the lay people who are committed to the growth of the Great Synagogue."

In January, Lazar invited Iranian-born hip-hop artist Behrang Miri as a guest speaker at the musical kabbalat Shabbat service. Miri, a self-described secular Muslim, competed to represent Sweden in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest and is a vocal supporter of the organization Ship to Gaza. He recorded the rap tune "Ramallah, Ramallah" during a solidarity trip to Palestine.

"We have invited rapper and social activist Behrang Miri to share with us his vision of intercultural dialogue among the youth in Sweden," Lazar explained on Facebook.

Some thought this was a positive gesture, but others were outraged.

"Who the hell doesn't want dialogue?" said Posner-Korosi. "But do you have to have it during a service?"

In a statement announcing the termination of Lazar's tenure, the Jewish Community said it would begin the process of recruiting a new rabbi as soon as possible. But considering it took three years to fill the position last time it may take a while before Stockholm gets a replacement.

Alf Levy, a former president of the Stockholm Jewish Community who was part of the committee that recruited Lazar, said that the geographical location and language barriers are two of the biggest challenges for Sweden when it comes to recruiting rabbis.

But Levy added that Sweden is not alone in this. "Communities across Europe are finding it hard to recruit Masorti [traditional] rabbis these days," he said. "There are just not that many around and they have their communities already so it is not easy to convince them to leave everything behind and come here."

Eli Gondor, the academic who withdrew his name from the petition, stressed that he would like Lazar to stay but that Jewish leadership is a matter for the community to resolve on its own.

"This campaign [fighting Lazar’s departure] has gone overboard and in the wrong direction," he said. "There are those who simply have nothing to do with this who have suddenly rushed to get involved in a matter they do not understand although they would never dream of telling a Christian community how to deal with its priest or a Muslim community how to deal with its imam."

As for Lazar, he told Haaretz that, "In every situation when you change what has been the norm you have the potential of attracting new people but also the danger of alienating those who have been coming all along…The challenge is how do you avoid that? In the end, I think it needs to be left up to the rabbi and the committee that deals with these kinds of things to decide where the line is drawn."

Lazar is still hoping to keep his position in the Stockholm community, which he says he has grown very fond of.

"Sascha and I would really like to stay," he said. "We're keeping the door open."

 

 Correction: The original version of this story referred to David Lazar as chief rabbi of Stockholm.  This was amended on the day of publication. 

Alon Ron