Reform rabbi dropped from ceremony

Group threatens disruption if bereaved father of fallen soldier allowed to pray.

jonathan boyden 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jonathan boyden 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A week after former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu said Reform Judaism was the sin that caused God to bring about the rise of Nazi Germany, Reform rabbi and grieving father Michael Boyden was prevented from reading a prayer at Hod Hasharon's memorial ceremony for fallen soldiers on Sunday evening. Boyden lost his son Jonathan in 1993, when, as a member of an elite Orev paratroopers company, Jonathan participated in a rescue operation to save soldiers who had come under fire in southern Lebanon. Boyden's congregation, Kehilat Yonatan, is named in his Jonathan's honor. As a member of Yad Labanim, which commemorates Israel's fallen soldiers, Boyden was asked a few weeks ago to chant the "El Malei Rachamim" [Merciful God] prayer at the annual ceremony on Sunday evening. Then, last Wednesday, he got a call from a reporter for the local Al Hasharon paper who told him that people objected to his doing so, Boyden told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "I was invited on Thursday to a meeting of the Yad Labanim board, and they asked me whether I'd be prepared to be called up to the stage to [chant the prayer], but without my title as rabbi," he said. Boyden refused: "I made aliya as Rabbi Boyden. My son served in the [Orev unit of the paratroopers] as the son of Rabbi Boyden. I've been called up in past ceremonies to say kaddish [the prayer for the dead] and speak on behalf of other bereaved parents as Rabbi Boyden. Why should I be delegitimized in this way?" For Boyden, being denied the right to say "El Malei Rachamim" is as though "[Reform Jews] are good enough when it comes to our sons fighting for the defense of the country, but we become second-class citizens when it comes to this." According to sources in the Hod Hasharon Municipality and on Yad Labanim's board, all of whom asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, the removal of Boyden from the ceremony came after an Orthodox Sephardi synagogue threatened to disrupt the ceremony should Boyden be allowed to chant the prayer from the stage. According to the sources, local rabbinic leader Reuven Hiller, who was asked not to deliver a sermon at this year's memorial ceremony after Yad Labanim received complaints that previous memorial sermons were overtly political and inappropriate, decided to push for the removal of the Reform rabbi from the ceremony. Hiller, however, disputed the claim vociferously. "It is the Committee of Grieving Families [which organizes the ceremony] that decided to enact changes this year," he insisted, noting that "the protocol of Yad Labanim calls for 'El Malei Rachamim' to be chanted by a cantor." Dozens of grieving families opposed the addition of Boyden to chant the prayer, he said. "In Remembrance Day ceremonies," Hiller continued, "you have to be sensitive to others' feelings. I'm here 20 years, and it's never been a grieving father [who read 'El Malei']. There are people who have been here 30 years who have never been asked." Asked if a grieving father who was not a Reform rabbi would be treated in the same manner, Hiller said he would not. "If he wasn't a Reform rabbi, we'd let him do it," he said, "but with Reform rabbis, their belief in God is questionable. I've had long conversations with my cousin, a Reform rabbi in the US, and it's a very far thing from what Judaism always was. So the Reform can't represent the entire audience as a prayer leader. They should find someone who is in the consensus" to chant the prayer. "I'm traditional, anything but Reform," said Yad Labanim board member Yehuda Schwartzman, "but this has got nothing to do with being Reform or religious; he's a grieving father." A grieving father himself, Schwartzman has opened Yad Labanim on the eve of Remembrance Day every year for the past 20. On Sunday night, for the first time, he boycotted the ceremony. "I and [fellow board member] Shlomi [Hayun] won't be there," he insisted earlier Sunday, since "we won't lend a hand to the exclusion of a grieving father, whether he's a Reform rabbi or an Orthodox rabbi or a sewer cleaner. No one asked to be in this family." Asked about the alleged threats to disrupt the ceremony, Schwartzman insisted they had taken place. "They threatened me personally," he insisted, "saying I was destroying Israel. But I said to them 'he's just a grieving father.' They said they'd rip up the cables, break the speakers. They said if the ceremony won't happen the way they want, it won't happen at all. We told the police to bring reinforcements." Moshe Eyal, chairman of the board of Yad Labanim in Hod Hasharon, noted that a compromise had been reached in which an IDF rabbi would officiate at the ceremony, with neither Hiller nor Boyden participating on stage. "Everybody's fine, and now we have to deal with our own pain, not with this issue," Eyal insisted, refusing to comment further about the cause for Boyden's removal from the ceremony. Hod Hasharon Mayor Chai Adiv, who lost his brother in war, echoed this sentiment, saying the political or religious issue should not overshadow the memory of the fallen. At the urging of friends, Boyden and his family attended the ceremony, sitting in the audience Sunday. But for Boyden, it was the memory of the fallen that had been trampled: "Yesterday, my wife said it was time to hang up flags for Independence Day, but I told her I didn't have the strength to do it. I just didn't feel proud of the country of which I'm a citizen and for which my son gave his life, that it should allow such a thing to happen."