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Controversial Israeli Reform Rabbi to Take over As Head of World Group

December 19, 2001
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Two months after drawing fire for an article in which he was quoted — inaccurately, as it turned out — comparing fervently Orthodox Jews to Islamic terrorists, Rabbi Uri Regev is gearing up for new skirmishes with the Orthodox.

At once combative and charming, Regev for nearly 20 years been among the foremost advocates for religious pluralism in Israel, both as a rabbi and an attorney.

Now he is taking a more global perspective.

The founder of the Israel Religious Action Center, Regev will assume the helm of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in January. A replacement has not yet been found for him at the Religious Center.

The World Union is the umbrella agency for Reform, Progressive, Liberal and Reconstructionist organizations in 40 countries. In promoting liberal Judaism, it often has clashed with local Orthodox leaders and — in countries where the government funds religious institutions — has faced obstacles obtaining funding for its synagogues and institutions.

Coverage of Regev’s High Holiday sermons at a Reform temple in suburban Cleveland this fall spurred Am Echad, an Orthodox group, to demand Regev’s resignation from the center.

Am Echad took out full-page advertisements in the Cleveland Jewish News and New York’s Jewish Week, and published several Op-Ed columns in the Jewish press.

The Cleveland Jewish News article initially quoted Regev saying fervently Orthodox Jews “have distorted Torah” teachings and “interpreted them as giving license to get rid of infidels.”

Those quotes were reprinted in the Am Echad ads, below photos of fervently Orthodox Jews helping in rescue efforts after terror attacks in Israel and New York.

The ads accused Regev of “vicious slander” and of exploiting the Sept. 11 tragedy to advance his own agenda.

But then Ellen Harris, the author of the Cleveland Jewish News articles, printed an article saying she manufactured some quotes and failed to clarify that Regev’s statements were made over a series of interviews, not in one single speech.

That prompted Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, to demand apologies from Am Echad. The group has refused.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesperson for Am Echad and the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, has refused to apologize to Regev for the media campaign.

While the quotes may have been fabricated, Shafran said, there’s “no question that the essential problem we had with what he said remains.

“He clearly made a comparison, subtly but very clearly, a few days after Sept. 11, between murderous terrorists who kill in the name of Islam and people he considers to be similar people in the haredi community,” Shafran said.

Regev insists that Am Echad, which he describes as “hypocritical,” took advantage of the “fabricated quotes” to advance its own agenda.

“You don’t find organizations regularly taking out full-page, paid ads in order to attack an individual,” Regev said in an interview at the Reform movement’s recent biennial in Boston.

“The statements didn’t really interest them,” he said. “They seized it as an opportunity to try to discredit me, because I represent a certain view which they’re out to discredit.”

Regev’s speeches addressed Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric as well as fervently Orthodox rhetoric that targets liberal Judaism.

Regev said he continues to be concerned about inflammatory rhetoric — particularly about liberal Judaism — made by some Orthodox leaders in Israel.

In an October interview, he told JTA, “What we need to understand is that it’s the religious fundamentalist hate speech” preceding acts of violence “that we should be more conscious of, concerned about addressing,” he said.

But, he said, “I didn’t compare anybody to Osama bin Laden. I was talking about religious fundamentalist hate speech that may turn to violence.”

In addition, according to Regev, American Orthodox Jews act hypocritically by championing America’s religious freedom — which serves their own interests — while opposing such freedom in Israel.

“You can’t support religious freedom when your rights are at stake, but turn around and deny these very freedoms of the next fellow Jew when you happen to come across the political clout that allows you to do so,” he said.

Liberal Jewish institutions receive far less government funding in Israel than do Orthodox ones. The Israeli government does not recognize weddings, divorces and conversions performed in Israel by liberal rabbis.

Orthodox parties have blocked Reform and Conservative efforts to change the status quo.

Shafran denied that Orthodox groups oppose religious freedom in Israel.

“One can be any kind of Jew or non-Jew you want to be in Israel,” he said. “No one prevents a Reform rabbi from operating fully in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

However, Shafran said, for Israel to be a Jewish state, the government can only recognize one standard — the Orthodox one — for conversions and other rites.

One of a small number of Israeli-born Reform rabbis, Regev describes his turn to Reform Judaism as “divine Providence or a coincidence, depending on your theology.”

Regev was born in Tel Aviv in 1951 and, like many Israelis, grew up secular. At age 16 he participated in an exchange program in the United States, where he stayed with a Reform Jewish family and participated in the movement’s camps, synagogues and youth group.

“It opened my eyes, as a native-born Israeli, to see a world beyond the dichotomy of the religious-secular divide,” he said.

In his new post, he hopes to bring Reform Judaism to far more Jews, who he says are yearning for a religious alternative to Orthodoxy.

He wants to continue efforts to build an “indigenous Reform movement in Israel and an indigenous Reform/Progressive/Liberal movement in the former Soviet Union.”

He also hopes to increase the World Union’s activism at the United Nations and on international social justice issues.

“The message of liberal Judaism should be heard as an alternative to the growing fundamentalist rhetoric being voiced all over the world,” he said.

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