An Open Letter To President-elect Rivlin


I congratulate Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin on his election to the presidency of our beloved State of Israel. He is now president-elect of the only Jewish nation in the world, and the symbolic leader of the world’s most diverse Jewish community. The State of Israel was founded to build a creative and inspiring Jewish and democratic homeland that offers its people a bright, welcoming and inclusive future. He follows a particularly strong predecessor, President Shimon Peres, whose inspired statesmanship brought together divergent streams of people for the good of Israel.

This past month, I was inaugurated as the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, North America’s first institution of higher Jewish learning, founded in Cincinnati in 1875. I am the president of the largest pluralistic Jewish seminary in the world, with campuses in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and in the heart of Jerusalem, founded to build creative and inspiring Jewish leadership for Jews in Israel, North America and around the globe and offer them a bright, welcoming and inclusive Jewish future.

Our new positions are, of course, slightly different. Yet from one new president to another, with love and respect, here’s my concern: President-elect Rivlin’s prior statements have suggested that his outlook is not truly broad enough to encompass non-Orthodox Jews as authentic, committed and respected partners in Israel. My concern is for the future of our thousands of young adults and children who yearn to embrace the Jewish state and all its citizens. His past actions have, at times, indicated a lack of understanding or acceptance of contemporary interpretations of Jewish life, particularly in the diaspora, which has the potential to distance a significant number of potential supporters for Israel.

From one new president to another, with love and respect, here’s my hope: President-elect Rivlin’s recent comments, which I applaud, suggest he may be adopting a new direction. He would, he said, represent “all the citizens of Israel — Jews, Arabs, Druze, rich, poor, religious and less religious.” I would, of course, want to clarify his use of the term “less religious” — Reform Jews are not “less religious” in any way; rather, we faithfully interpret and enact our tradition with greater stress on its inherent commitments to innovation, egalitarianism, inclusiveness and universalism.

His statement of intent offers, it seems, an important olive branch to those with whom he may differ ideologically, a laudable and welcome step as he assumes the presidency. Members of the Reform Jewish community in North America, the largest stream in American Judaism, and a growing segment of Israeli Jews who affiliate with the Reform movement, join me in hopeful anticipation that his words reflect a new openness to respectful dialogue and work together.

A new presidency is always an opportunity for re-evaluating prior history in light of current opportunities. There is much to do to ensure the vibrant and secure future of our global Jewish  community. We support you and look forward to consulting with President-elect Rivlin in Jerusalem in the days ahead, and to working together in constructive dialogue in the years ahead, for the good of all the citizens of Israel and all the members of our global community.

Rabbi Aaron Panken is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion