Conservative rabbis claim exclusion from b’nai mitzvah at Israeli president’s residence


TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israeli and American Conservative rabbis are protesting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, claiming that he shut their movement out of a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for Israeli children with disabilities.

The ceremony, scheduled to take place at the end of June, was supposed to be co-officiated by one Conservative rabbi, Mike Goldstein, and one Orthodox rabbi, Benny Lau, Conservative movement officials say. At the service, 10 children with disabilities such as autism, will undergo a group bnai mitzvah ceremony.

But a strongly worded letter to Rivlin signed last week by 24 Conservative rabbis and movement professionals claims that Rivlin sent them the official ceremony program last week — without Goldstein’s name.

“It is painful to say it, but this is an act of cruelty in which disabled children and their parents are being denied a service that would help them,” according to the letter, which asserts that “the sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program, the worldwide Conservative/Masorti movement.”

Rivlin’s spokesman, Jason Pearlman, told a different story, saying the event program had yet to be finalized, and a number of possible options for the ceremony were still on the table. A statement put out by the president’s office in response to the letter criticized the “obstinacy” of the Conservative rabbis and accused them of “seeking to advance their agenda through the cynical use of children.”

“The final details of what was going to happen and who would do what in what order, these details had yet to be finalized,” Pearlman told JTA.

But Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti movement, Israel’s counterpart to the Conservative movement, said the details of the event had been finalized at a meeting at the president’s residence on May 26.

“We had a meeting in the president’s house with the president’s people, two-and-a-half hours, going from every place to every place, putting the program together by the minute,” Hess told JTA. “Everything was set in stone.”

Hess says that if Rivlin agrees to hold a co-officiated service as previously planned, the ceremony can go on.

The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for children with disabilities has been taking place in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, under the auspices of the Masorti movement, for 20 years. The celebration was moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem after Rahamim Malul, the mayor of Rehovot, in April canceled the ceremony in his city because it would be held at a Masorti synagogue.

Malul, a former lawmaker for the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, said that there were several students with disabilities in the program who were uncomfortable going to a non-Orthodox synagogue.

Rivlin has made reconciliation between different sectors of Israeli society his central goal as president. But this isn’t the first time Rivlin has offended non-Orthodox movements. In 1989, after visiting a New Jersey Reform synagogue, Rivlin — then the chairman of the Likud party — told Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot that Reform Judaism is “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

“It looks to me like he’s building his record, he’s expanding his record,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, told JTA. “Previously, he’s made these highly derogatory comments about the Reform movement. Now, he has not only added the Conservative movement to that, but he has deepened the impact of his loathing of our movements.”

CORRECTION: This article originally said that Rabbi Julie Schonfeld was the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. She holds that post with the Rabbinical Assembly. Also, the story said originally that were several Orthodox students in the program having a bar mitzvah. There are no Orthodox students in the program having a bar mitzvah.

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