The Reform Jews Are Afraid of Lau

The rabbinic head of Reform Jewry in the U.S. is a leader whom Israel's president won't call 'rabbi.' The possibility that Katsav's successor could be Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Lau is drawing fire.

Undoubtedly the harshest comment on the possibility of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Lau's becoming the country's president came from Rabbi Meir Azari of Beit Daniel, the Center for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv: "Does anyone in Israel think it is possible to appoint a president who is not on speaking terms with most of the Jews in the United States?" he asked. "So, when he's president, the U.S. Jewish community, which is mainly Conservative and Reform, will be banished from the President's Residence?"

On Sunday, Beit Daniel will hold a ceremony to inaugurate its Mishkenot Daniel cultural center in Jaffa. "Let's say that he was already the president. Would he come to the ceremony?" asked Azari. "Would he accept a delegation of Reform rabbis in the President's Residence?"

The president represents the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. Rabbi Uri Regev, an Israeli, now leads the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the umbrella organization of Reform congregations around the world. "I know Rabbi Lau quite well and I am profoundly troubled by the possibility that he may be seeking the presidency and by those who seek to support his appointment," Regev says. "Rabbi Lau," he says, "missed no opportunity to express an adversarial, hurtful, and dismissive approach toward non-Orthodox branches of Judaism."

Regev mentions the Conversion Law crisis of 1997 in which then-chief rabbis of Israel Lau and Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron refused to meet with Progressive and Conservative rabbis. "His appointment to the presidency," Regev says, "will unmistakably damage relations between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The glory of the State of Israel [a phrase used in the torch-lighting ceremony at Israel Independence celebrations] will not be reflected in this path."

Lau's spokesman, Itzik Rath responded, "Presidential elections will take place in more than a year from now. There is a president in Jerusalem, and these questions are premature." Rath added that Lau never announced his candidacy for president, and that he was always a firm believer in conducting a dialogue with every man. "It is safe to assume that, in any capacity, he would act according to the principle of dialogue and discussion," said Rath.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of public policy for the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), an arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), says the Reform movement in Israel intends to challenge every candidate for the presidency and examine his attitude toward liberal branches of Judaism. That would include a request by a delegation of Progressive rabbis to meet with Rabbi Lau to examine, in detail, his willingness to conduct dialogue and discussion.

A pat on the shoulder

One of the rabbis that Rabbi Lau as president would be required to meet in the President's Residence, is Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of ARZA, Association of Reform Zionists in America, in other words, the Zionist arm of the American Reform Movement. Davids would not disqualify an Orthodox rabbi as a candidate for the presidency nor would he disqualify one who had served as Israel's chief rabbi. But he has a condition - that the elected president would recognize Progressive rabbis and address them by the title of "rabbi."

Rabbi Davids chose this particular test because current President Moshe Katsav apparently refuses to refer to Progressive rabbis by that title. Among others, Katsav refuses to refer to the leader of the U.S. Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffe, by the title of rabbi. Rabbi Yoffe is undeniably one of the most important Jews in the world. Anat Hoffman notes that Katsav employs several methods to avoid addressing the rabbi by his title in their meetings - he pats Yoffe on the shoulder, called him, "sir," but, "never called him, rabbi." Once, when the rabbi insisted on correcting the president, Katsav said, "I cannot call you that."

In a televised eve of Rosh Hashanah interview on Channel 1, Katsav was asked to comment on this issue. "I am accustomed, from my father's home, to address a rabbi, by that title, who has been ordained in the context of the way of life which I personally maintain," Katsav explained. According to him, "The minute that the State of Israel, the Knesset, will decide to recognize a Progressive rabbi as a rabbi the president of the state, in this case, myself, would also be obligated to do so. As long as the State of Israel has yet to recognize him, I will not be the first to recognize him."

The Reform Movement has drawn conclusions. When Yoffe participates in the 35th World Zionist Congress next week, he will meet with the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs, with the head of the opposition party - but he will not visit the President's Residence. This will be the first time, as far as anyone knows, that Yoffe will attend a World Zionist Congress without meeting the president.

"Eric is a tremendous friend of Israel," Hoffman says. "But he does not customarily come to people who do not respect him. This is a disgrace, pettiness and utter lack of courtesy."

To be fair, it must be said that Katsav is not considered an enemy of the Progressive Movement. In the Channel 1 interview, he also said, "I opened the doors of the President's Residence to the Reform community to an extent that no president did in the past, despite the fact that I do not accept their path. I respect the fact that the Reform Movement is an important movement and a large and powerful force in the lives of the Jewish People."

Akiva Tor, Katsav's adviser on Diaspora matters, told Haaretz that Reform rabbis bear that title in all correspondence and protocol.

Meir Azari says that almost every interview that he granted in Israel in recent years was conducted in a cafe in North Tel Aviv. Beit Daniel, the congregation that Azari leads, is housed in a particularly upscale area on the banks of the Yarkon River. Avant-garde celebrities like talk-show host and journalist Yair Lapid and singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi provide services to the Progressive congregation. My interview with Rabbi Azari this week was his first in a hummus joint in Jaffa. The location was supposed to symbolize a new phase in Azari's life, that of the congregation and that of the entire Progressive Movement.

On Sunday, an inauguration ceremony will be held for the Mishkenot Daniel cultural center, close to Bloomfield Stadium. For years, the local Reform Movement has been contemplating a move beyond Israel's prestige locales to the periphery and impoverished neighborhoods, but this is almost the first time that the movement has taken a significant step in that direction. Why "almost"? Because the movement's premilitary preparatory program is already operating only a few hundred meters away from the rising, magnificent Mishkenot Daniel building.

Why an inauguration ceremony rather than the traditional, Jewish hanukat habayit (dedication of the home) Because the building will only be complete in October but the World Zionist Congress will take place next week and will be attended by a significant number of Reform and Conservative VIPs who will not be in Israel in October. Azari hoped that donors Ruth and Jerry Daniel would also attend the ceremony, but they can't for health reasons. The Tel Aviv Foundation also contributed $2 million to the $12 million project, which includes a contemporary youth hostel, an expansive auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue to be built in the next phase of construction.

"In Tel Aviv," says Azari, "more people studied Jewish sources in alternative settings like Beit Daniel and Alma on the eve of the Shavuot holiday than in Orthodox settings." Azari says that if the main criticism of the Reform Movement in Israel has to do with the foreign background of most of the movement's members, this is no longer true in Tel Aviv. "I feel very comfortable in Tel Aviv, very secure, very 'in.'"

Reaching out

One of the reasons to build Mishkenot Daniel in Tel Aviv is lack of necessary space in the movement's northern digs to contain all of its activities. Azari fails to enthusiastically respond to my double-edged observation that he currently holds the position of "chief rabbi of North Tel Aviv." He prefers the title granted to him by a popular women's magazine, "chief secular rabbi."

He agrees that the movement's presence in the [underprivileged] Hatikva Quarter is lacking. "We are very bad at talking to Sephardic [Spanish, Middle Eastern, and North African] Jewry. We must develop to include Sephardic music and commentary." But Azari firmly believes that there are already rabbis in the movement who can reach out to residents of poorer neighborhoods and peripheral cities.

Azari would be happy to see the movement establish a congregation in communities like Sderot. Their mayors currently enjoy collaborating with the local Reform Movement, he says, but they wish that the community would provide them with some funding.

Despite success in Tel Aviv, Azari has a sense of missed opportunities. Secular Israelis were never as open and attentive to Jewish tradition as they are now. The nation is suddenly chock-full of secular study halls in which Jewish sources are examined and secular sites of Jewish prayer. "There are organizations which promote Jewish alternatives which are, in fact, a form of Reform Judaism," he says. "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. Just look at the industry that arose in Israel on the ruins of the Reform Movement's weaknesses. We should have been at the forefront of this revolution."

At the inauguration ceremony, he will ask every one of the million members of the U.S. Reform movement to contribute $18 a year to the IMPJ, the local movement. "There is a window of opportunity in Israel which is closing. The secular public opened its door to the Reform Movement," he warns. "The Reform Movement does not see this potential or invest in it. That is absurd because the Reform Movement in the U.S. is undoubtedly the wealthiest Jewish community that has ever existed on Earth. How much are we talking about?" he asks. "What's $18? Another $3 million would produce a revolution in alternative Jewish culture in Israel. The Promised Land exists - just touch it," says Azari. "But the Reform Jew is still afraid."

One of the Jews who are still afraid, says Azari, is Andrew Davids. The ARZA organization, which Davids leads, will hold its first annual assembly in Israel, rather than the U.S. on the weekend. Azari says that his movement contributes $400,000 annually to the local Reform Movement but he does not believe that the local movement should rely on checks written by a Reform Jewish Uncle Sam. Those are not healthy relations, he says.