President Reuven Rivlin, whose seven-year tenure concludes in July, began his round of farewells earlier this year, sometimes hosting individuals and organizations that wanted to express their appreciation, and sometimes going to hospitals, municipal offices, institutions and army bases to offer moral support and encouragement to so many people who were confronted with new challenges during the past year, and who rose to the occasion because it was the right thing to do.
On Monday, he met with representatives of the Jewish Diaspora communities for an online farewell that will be screened on Israel Independence Day.
The Israel-based representatives who came to the President’s Residence to personally express their feelings to Rivlin, included Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, chairman of United Israel Appeal Sam Grundwerg and chairman of the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel. Joining them on video were head of the Zionist General Council Helena Glazer, chairman of the World Board of Trustees of United Israel Appeal Steven Lowy and chair of the Board of Trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America Mark Wilf.
Rivlin told his guests and the audiences abroad who will be watching the broadcast, that over the past seven years he had the privilege of learning from them. He particularly admired the “strong spirit of mutual responsibility which characterizes so many Jewish communities.”
Rivlin then said something controversial for which he will be lambasted in certain Israeli quarters. He dared to say: “I deeply appreciate the diverse expressions of Jewish identity. We must remember that we are one, strong, big and diverse family. We have a shared destiny. A new Israeli and Jewish hope must be based on unity and diversity, on mutual understanding and shared experiences.”
Part of this is almost diametrically opposite to Rivlin’s viewpoint when he first took office. Though not religiously observant, Rivlin was raised in a very traditional Jewish family, and was given a good grounding in Jewish Law and Jewish history, and self identifies as “secular-Orthodox.” With this background, he did not look kindly on Conservative and Reform Judaism, and negative comments that he had made when in this frame of mind, specifically after a visit to the US, were recalled by various journalists after Rivlin took on the office of president.
Visits by American delegations from both movements, accompanied by members of the Israeli leadership of the two non-Orthodox movements, helped to convince Rivlin that he may have been misguided in his thinking. He has since been a great champion of diversity, while simultaneously promoting unity among different sectors of Jewish communities abroad, and of all sectors in Israeli society.
Part of Rivlin’s change in attitude was the realization that there are very staunch Zionists among members of the Conservative and Reform movements – a factor to which Rivlin attaches great importance.
“I want to thank all of you for all that you do for Israel and the Jewish People. For being side by side with Israel, for defending Israel, for defending Zionism and the Jewish people,” he said. “This place, Beit HaNassi, (the President’s Residence), will always be your home. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” Rivlin also stressed the importance of following the philosophy of Hillel and listening to each other, emphasizing: “We are still building our modern state in our ancient homeland, a state that is Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, in the same breath, at the same time, and you are all full partners in this effort.”
Rivlin listed some of the activities in which Diaspora Jews and Israelis have come together, instancing among others combating antisemitism, making Jewish education stronger, and promoting Holocaust remembrance. “While we have come far,” he said, there is still so much more we can do.”
In the late afternoon of Independence Day, Rivlin will host members of the foreign diplomatic corps, a long-time tradition amongst the presidents of Israel, but this time it will also be to bid them farewell and to tell those whose countries he visited, how much he appreciated the hospitality that was shown to him and his entourage.
Some visits that had been scheduled had to be canceled or put on hold for Rivlin’s successor in line with closed skies policies during the pandemic. When Rivlin has mentioned this to ambassadors who have conveyed the invitations of their respective heads of state, Rivlin has been told that he will always be welcome, both in and out of office.