Rabbi Benny Lau, one of Israel's most prominent religious Zionist rabbis, had a farewell seudah shlisheet (third meal) attended by over 400 people on the afternoon of his last Saturday serving as Rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in south Jerusalem.
Lau, a nephew of former chief rabbi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and first cousin of the current chief rabbi David Lau, has served as rabbi of the synagogue for 18 years, arriving from Kibbutz Saad in the South.
The event started with refreshments in the courtyard and then proceeded to the sanctuary, where members paid tribute with words and song.
Yair Goldshmidt, who represented the young members, spoke about how Rabbi Lau was very much in touch with reality and always strove to make Judaism relevant and engaging. Professor Joseph S. Bodenheimer, former president of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), reflected on the rabbi having transformed Ramban from a synagogue to a multi-layered community. Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch, the spiritual leader of Ramban said: "Rabbi Lau showed me that being Rabbi is really about being a social worker and knowing how to behave and help people in many situations - from the hospital, hospice and shiva house to wedding and bar mitzvah celebrations. I learned so much from his sensitivity and humanity. Rabbi Lau synthesized Torah and humanity in a natural way, which will be a lesson I will take with me."
Rabbanit Noa Lau, Rabbi Lau's wife, described how he had initiated programs to enhance the status and involvement of women - for instance, women taking part in Simchat Torah and Purim celebrations, enhancing the quality of their education and providing them with leadership opportunities. She said that they would continue to live in the community and looked forward to visiting Ramban and maintaining the friendships they have made.
Lisa Cohen, another member of the community said, "on a personal level, Rabbi Lau was able to connect with us. When we asked him for advice he was able to help us see things in another, fresher perspective."
In his closing address, Rabbi Lau spoke about how he had seen the community develop from one of a few families into a "real community" based on the principles of Torah, prayer and acts of kindness. He also referred to the challenges of being a spiritual leader of a community with such a heterogeneous membership and, like Noa, said he looked forward to seeing the community continue to flourish and impact broader Israeli society.
On Monday evening, Lau gave his last popular halacha (Jewish Law) class which addresses how Orthodoxy deals with contemporary issues. During the class, he held a photo of his grandfather, the famous Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, who was killed in the Holocaust. He explained that by making Judaism relevant to the challenges of modern times, he was ” following in the footsteps of my grandfather.”
Also on Monday evening, Lau spoke about how, as the rabbi at Ramban, he has tried to focus on two major issues within orthodoxy -how Orthodox Judaism needs to relate to the LGBT community and how to make Jewish ritual life more accessible to the handicapped. He spoke with passion about how he had attempted to make these two sectors feel as equal and a respected part of the mainstream. One example he gave was that he believes kohanim (priests) who are handicapped should be able to carry out their duties in the synagogue, and referred to the harsh criticism he has received for saying this from leading rabbis, including Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein.
Although it is unclear what Lau's next move will be, it is expected that he will focus on his 929 bible program and continue with his very busy speaking schedule. Rabbi Itiel Oron will be replacing Rabbi Lau as the rabbi of the synagogue.