Leading members of the Reform movement this week indicated a growing level of comfort with President Reuven Rivlin whose earlier negative statements regarding North America’s largest Jewish denomination had raised hackles in the Diaspora.
American Jewish organizations had expressed cautious optimism tinged with reservations following Rivlin’s election in June and the longtime legislator acted swiftly to move beyond his previous public statements on Reform, in which he characterized the movement as “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”
Recalling a visit to an American Reform synagogue during an interview with Yediot Aharonot
in 1989, Rivlin described the movement as “idol worship and not Judaism.”
Since his election, however, the president has attempted to mend fences, making conciliatory gestures in meetings with representatives of Diaspora Jewry.
Thirty-five percent of American Jews identify themselves as Reform.
Speaking with members of the board of governors of Hebrew Union College on Tuesday, Rivlin said, “We are one family and the connection between all Jews, all over the world, is very important to the State of Israel.”
That statement echoed one he made in a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in July, in which he said several times that Jews in Israel and abroad are “one family... In spite of [our] differences,” calling that relationship “very important.”
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Rivlin “was really dancing around” the issues, but his remarks certainly marked a “mild shift” in his approach to Reform Judaism, Rabbi Yehudit Werchow, the director of Israel Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism, said at the time.
Rivlin’s comments on Tuesday further reassured Reform leaders.
“From what I can see he’s making good attempts to be responsible to his position, responsible to what the state of Israel needs,” HUC President Rabbi Aaron D. Panken said in response to Rivlin’s overtures.
“I’m not sure it’s completely fair to judge someone by something they said 25 years ago. People grow and change over time. I think they rethink positions. I also think that if you’re in the position of being president of the State of Israel it’s different than being a single individual.”
Rivlin “spoke beautifully,” with his remarks constituting a “recognition of our place in Israeli society,” he said.
“I’d like to build a relationship going forward, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Reform has made “some progress” in advancing its stature and gaining recognition in Israel, Panken added.
“Certainly if you come here as a Reform convert, the state now recognizes that you are Jewish and puts that on your identity papers.”
The American rabbi described progress in allowing non-Orthodox prayers at the Western Wall and the authorization of several non-Orthodox rabbis to go on the state’s payroll as “cracks in the ice on kind of the legal front.”
More importantly, however, he contended, Israelis are becoming more receptive to the message of Reform.
As opposed to Diaspora Jews, Israelis have kept to more of a binary approach to Judaism. While varying degrees of religious observance have existed in Israel since the beginning, non-Orthodox streams have not had the traction or popularity they enjoyed elsewhere.
“We’re doing thousands of bnai mitzva every year, thousands of weddings, hundreds of funerals. We’ve now become a serious address for Judaism in the State of Israel in the Reform movement,” he said. “I think we’re on the way. I don’t think the flip has entirely happened, but I think the flip is definitely in progress.”
Secular Jews whose spiritual desires have not been satisfied by Orthodoxy are “really flocking to have their life-cycle events with us, to do learning with us, and I think that’s great.”
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, likewise, indicated a growing rapport with the president.
At first, Jacobs said Rivlin “had some questions about whether he could address me as rabbi,” he recalled Wednesday, adding that he subsequently received a telephone call from Rivlin in which the president called him “HaRav,” the Hebrew word for rabbi.
Rivlin said it “in the most respectful way” and the meeting was a “continuation” of that respect and he is working at “building a very strong connection,” Jacobs said.
Rivlin’s statements regarding Jewish- Arab coexistence took a lot of courage, Jacobs continued, adding that “we admire his moral leadership.”
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