Rivlin’s Office Downplays President’s Absence From Jewish Agency Annual Assembly

Israeli president had originally been set to address world Jewish leaders on Sunday. His cancelation sparked rumors about spat with Conservative movement.

President Reuven Rivlin strolls with a bodyguard in the background.
Emil Salman

As the Jewish Agency convenes for its annual assembly and board of governors meeting in Tel Aviv this week, one notable name is absent from the list of dignitaries due to address world Jewish leaders: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Rivlin had been invited to appear at a special session on Sunday, the opening day of the event, and his name appeared on an earlier schedule distributed by the Jewish Agency. His name was removed, however, after he notified organizers he wouldn’t be able to attend.

Leaders of the worldwide Conservative movement, whose representatives sit on the Jewish Agency board of governors, have been irate over Rivlin’s decision to exclude one of their rabbis from a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children, which had been scheduled to take place at his official residence.

Senior sources in the movement said they were convinced the president’s decision to decline the Jewish Agency invitation was an attempt to avoid an unpleasant confrontation with them during Sunday’s session.

In a strongly worded letter sent to the president nearly two weeks ago, Conservative movement leaders wrote they were “utterly shocked” by his decision to have the bar mitzvah ceremony officiated exclusively by an Orthodox rabbi.

After lack of consensus, the bar mitzvah ceremony was ultimately canceled. The Conservative movement has been running this bar mitzvah program for disabled children at cities around the country for the past 20 years.

Rivlin’s office on Friday rejected any suggestion that he had decided not to attend the Jewish Agency event because of his highly publicized clash with the Conservative movement. His spokesman, Jason Pearlman, said the president’s office had already notified the Jewish Agency on May 25, two weeks before he received the letter from the Conservative leaders, that he wouldn’t be able to attend. “He has a really full schedule,” said Pearlman.

Rivlin did deliver welcoming remarks at the previous meeting of the Jewish Agency board of governors, which took place earlier this year.

The slot reserved for Rivlin on Sunday’s schedule is being filled by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Asked for comment, Yigal Palmor, the director of communications at the Jewish Agency, responded, “This is the schedule we have come up with in accordance with the availability of all personalities involved.”

Among the Israeli dignitaries addressing the annual assembly are Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.