Masorti Movement and President's office trade accusations over Bar Mitzvah ceremony dispute

In April, Rehovot mayor Rahamim Malul called off the Bar Mitzva ceremony for four autistic boys at a special-needs school in Rehovot.

June 8, 2015 03:43
3 minute read.

Pres. Rivlin at the 13th annual Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony at the President’s Residence for boys and girls who were either injured themselves or who lost a parent or whose parents were permanently injured in a terrorist incident.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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A rancorous dispute has broken out between the Masorti Movement and President Reuven Rivlin over a bar mitzva ceremony for autistic children, originally scheduled to take place in the children’s school in Rehovot.

The ceremony was part of a bar and bat mitzva program for special needs children in Israel run by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement around the country for almost 20 years.

In April, Mayor Rahamim Malul called off the bar mitzva ceremony for four autistic boys at a special-needs school in Rehovot, because he objected to it being conducted in a Masorti synagogue by a Masorti rabbi.

The Masorti Movement approached the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and asked it to find a suitable solution, and the ministry proposed the ceremony be held at the President’s Residence and began discussions with President’s Office to bring this about.

According to the Masorti Movement, it was proposed that the ceremony would be jointly officiated at the residence by Masorti Rabbi Mikie Goldstein and Orthodox Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau and this was the plan agreed upon.

However, the Masorti Movement says that the program subsequently sent out by the President’s Office did not include the participation of Goldstein and said the ceremony would be led by an Orthodox rabbi alone.

Senior rabbis from the Masorti Movement have now written to Rivlin to protest the decision, calling it “an act of cruelty,” and saying that it was based on the “contempt of Israel’s leaders for the sponsors of this program, the worldwide Conservative/ Masorti Movement.”

The movement believes that Rivlin personally intervened and “reneged” on the agreement that had been drawn up.

“A modern, scientific, humanitarian, democratic state cannot deny a program to disabled children simply because of your loathing for our Jewish philosophy and practice,” the rabbis said in their letter to Rivlin. They included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The President’s Office said in response that several compromise proposals were put forward, but that the Masorti Movement rejected them, including staging the ceremony outside the President’s Residence and then having the children join Rivlin at the residence afterward for a celebratory party.

“Unfortunately, religious figures seeking to advance their agenda through the cynical use of children refused to respond to every framework proposed by the President’s Office, and we are saddened by this approach,” the office said in response to the incident.

“In recent days, frantic efforts were made by the director-general of the President’s Office, the director-general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, and others to find an agreed upon solution to hold the event in a way that would not perpetuate the dispute, including holding the religious service at a different location, before the children come to the President’s Residence to celebrate, or holding the event at the President’s Residence without any rabbinical involvement at all from any denomination.

“But these too failed due to the obstinacy of the Masorti Movement to stick with the original plan to run the event themselves. The President’s Office once again invites the children to a festive reception in a way that will place them and only them at the center of the event,” the office said.

The Ruderman Foundation, which has contributed to the Masorti Movement’s bar and bat mitzva project, expressed disappointment with Rivlin and said that such incidents could negatively impact the affinity of American Jews to Israel.

“The American Jewish community both values it’s pluralistic nature and plays an outsized role in ensuring the security of the State of Israel,” said foundation president Jay Ruderman.

“President Rivlin should understand that the lack of religious pluralism in Israel is not reflected in the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, namely the United States. As the president of Israel, he should realize that the exclusion of religious leaders from one of the major Jewish religious movements could have repercussions on the relationship between American Jews and Israel.”

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