President Reuven Rivlin met Tuesday for the first time with a high-level delegation of Reform movement leaders from North America. The delegation was headed by Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Cincinnati-based Hebrew Union College, the main seminary for training rabbis, cantors and educators in Reform Judaism.
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“I see it as a wonderful first step in building a relationship with him,” Panken told Haaretz following the hour-long meeting. “I think it symbolizes an openness to welcoming people from diverse streams of Judaism, and I think that’s very important.”
Speaking to the delegation members, Rivlin said: “I can say to all of you, we are one family and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel. I welcome you here and want to tell you that I know so many Jerusalemites now that are grandfathers and grandmothers, and only came here to study at the Hebrew Union College but have now been here for three generations.”
Leaders of the Reform movement had initially expressed concern about Rivlin’s appointment, after it had emerged that in a statement made 15 years ago, he had referred to Reform Judaism as “idol worship and not Judaism.” Rivlin himself is not observant.
Panken said that at today’s meeting, “no serious discussions or debates” about Reform Judaism were held. “That wasn’t really the goal,” he said.
The 53-person delegation included Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Richard A. Block, the chief executive officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical leadership organization for Reform Judaism. Also participating were members of the board of governors of HUC, a young Reform leadership group from Los Angeles, various lay leaders in the movement and three of four Israeli rabbis scheduled to be ordained this week in Jerusalem.
Panken noted that this was the first large group of Reform Jews with whom Rivlin had met. “I do hope this will represent the beginning to a series of conversations with the president and other members of the government about the beautiful relationship the 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America want to have with the State of Israel,” he said.
As part of his effort to mend relations with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Rivlin also met in September with a high-level delegation of Conservative movement leaders.