(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Chief Rabbi David Lau has criticized Bayit Yehudi chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting a Conservative Jewish school during a recent trip to the US earlier this month, saying if the minister had asked his opinion he would have told him he could not go to the school.
Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora affairs minister, made a stop at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan which is associated with the Conservative Jewish denomination on December 1, speaking with the pupils and joining in a Hebrew singing session with them.
He tweeted a video of his visit afterwards saying “Meeting with the pupils of the wonderful Conservative school ‘Solomon Schechter’ in New York. So much love of Israel and so much love of Judaism.”
Lau took a dim view of the minister’s visit.
“Bennett should be asked if took advice from a rabbi before his meeting, and I suspect very much that he didn’t, since this behavior is not acceptable to the general Jewish public,” the chief rabbi said in an interview with the haredi Radio Kol Hai station on Wednesday.
“To speak deliberately with a specific community and to recognize it and its path, when this path distances Jews from the path of the Jewish people, this is forbidden,” continued Lau. “If Minister Bennett would have asked my opinion before the visit I would have said to him explicitly, “You cannot go somewhere where the education distances Jews from tradition, from the past, and from the future of the Jewish people.”
Lau said that only Orthodoxy was the future of Judaism and that Orthodox Jews “should tell them that if you continue in this manner you will lose your children and grandchildren.”
Bennett is a member of the Orthodox national-religious community.
The chief rabbi was likely referring to research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, which showed that intermarriage and assimilation in the US was much higher among the non-Orthodox denominations than in the Orthodox community.
Following Lau’s comments Bennett’s office issued a statement which took aim at the chief rabbi for what he said were words that alienated instead of embraced Jews around the world.
“Minister Bennett believes that public leaders in Israel need to draw Jews close and not to excommunicate them,” the statement read.
His office did, however, assert that the assimilation of US Jews Lau alluded to was a real concern but recommended engagement with non-Orthodox Jewish denominations which Bennett promised to continue.
“Diaspora Jewry is in a state of emergency as the phenomenon of assimilation reaches millions of Jews. As someone who is responsible in the Israeli government for the issue of the Diaspora, Minister Bennett is proud that he is concerned for all Jews because they are Jewish and will continue to meet Jews from all denominations.”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, also criticized the chief rabbi, saying that neither he nor the Chief Rabbinate were important to the Jewish people.
“Neither of them is relevant, not to the people who dwell in Zion and not to the people who live in the Diaspora,” said Hess.
“Rabbi Lau has forgotten, along with some of the MKs of the haredi parties and even some of the MKs from Bennett’s party who criticized the visit, that the State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people, and that this people, in Israel and in the Diaspora, believes that there is more than one way to be Jewish. This is not the first time Minister Bennett has visited, met, and embraced Jews from across the spectrum, and specifically because this is not something which is a matter of course he should be praised for doing so.”
The Pew Report of 2013 showed that 27 percent of US Conservative Jews married non-Jewish spouses, as did 50% of Reform Jews, compared to 2% of Orthodox Jews.
The report also found that of US Jews who married other Jews, 68% said that being Jewish was a very important aspect of their lives, compared to 31% of intermarried Jews. At the same time, 32% of intermarried Jews said that being Jewish was either not too important or not important at all in their lives.
Eighty-eight percent of US Conservative Jews said they are raising their children to be Jewish by religion, compared to 60% for Reform Jews and 97% for Orthodox Jews.