President Rivlin and Reform: Drawing Closer, Despite Differences

Israel’s newly sworn-in president, forsaking his previous public hostility towards Reform Judaism, now shows us warmth and respect, in the spirit of togetherness that especially characterizes these difficult times.

Rick Jacobs
Rick Jacobs
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Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.
Israel's newly elected President Reuven Rivlin visits the Western Wall in the Jerusalem's Old City, on June 10, 2014.Credit: AFP
Rick Jacobs
Rick Jacobs

I hadn’t planned on spending three days in Israel last week, but with Hamas’s war against the people of Israel, I knew I had to be there. The FAA’s temporary ban on flights to Israel made my travel harder but thankfully I managed to secure one of the last seats on a packed El Al flight with others who just couldn’t be far from Israel at such a time.

A few weeks earlier I stood with thousands of Israelis in Modiin at the burial of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad, the kidnapped Israeli teens. Rabbi Dov Zinger, Dean of Yeshiva Makor Chaim in Kfar Etzion, where two of boys had studied, gave a moving eulogy. Amidst his personal remembrances, he offered an adaptation of a simple yet familiar line; instead of “two Jews, three opinions,” he said, “two Jews, three opinions, one heart.” He expressed the deep sense of interconnectedness that we all felt and continue to feel.

A few hours before that heart wrenching funeral I had a long-awaited meeting with then-President elect Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin. Natan Sharansky, whose leadership of the Jewish people is all about unity, knew how important it was for Israel’s new president to forge a positive relationship with the largest movement in Jewish life. Years earlier, as a member of Knesset, Rivlin had spoken very harshly about the Reform Movement after visiting one of our congregations with a group of Knesset members.

At our private meeting I told the man who would soon be sworn in as Israel’s 10th president that our Reform Movement was not only numerically large but more importantly: We are strong, we are proud, and we love the State of Israel. I asked him to find a place in his presidency for our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism that animates almost 900 congregations with over a million and a half North American Jews. We honor and respect the many different expressions of Judaism from the ultra-Orthodox to secular Jews. I told him how much I appreciated his acceptance speech, when he said wanted to be the president of all Israelis: “Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, those who are more observant and those who are less.” I asked if we would also be included. I shared that the world has too many people who have disdain or antipathy towards our people and our beloved homeland, so we need to draw closer together even with our profound differences.

Our meeting in Sharansky’s office was warm and promising but the real change came last week when he called me. At that moment I was on a commuter train on my way to my office in New York City. A profound shift had occurred: President Rivlin addressed me as Rabbi Jacobs – we spoke in Hebrew and he called me HaRav, the same title used for respected Orthodox rabbis. He pledged as Israel’s new president to work closely with our movement as, together, we face the many challenges before the Jewish State and the Jewish world. I felt the warmth and genuineness of his words and pledged that he could count on the partnership of our movement.

Two Jews, three opinions, one heart.

Rabbi Jacobs is president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest movement of organized Jewry in North America and affiliated with the Israel Religious Action Center and the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism.

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