Dr. Nelson Glueck: How it really was

Freedom of religion – for Jews as well.

Nelson Glueck in 1956 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Nelson Glueck in 1956
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
NELSON GLUECK, a debonair rabbi and great archaeologist, was a charismatic man of action as well. He was president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the rabbinical seminaries of the Reform movement. In spite of discrepancies of age and achievements, we had become friends: he a firmly rooted Reform personage, and the writer, a young member of the Prime Minister’s Office, reporting to its director general, the unforgettable Teddy Kollek.
Dr. Nelson Glueck understood the importance of “presence” and of “location, location, location!” He had procured for HUC a prime plot perhaps 100 meters from the King David Hotel. We discussed the dedication ceremony – it was 1963.
“Can you get us BG?” Why the question? Why should prime minister David Ben-Gurion not come? Well, naturally the usual suspects raised hell about the opening of a Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. The Reform movement had to state that their synagogue would serve the students of the HUC Jerusalem only – not the general public.
“Sure. BG will come.”
It never occurred to me that he would not come. After all, Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises freedom of religion.
The intention was to “guarantee” Christian and Muslim inhabitants of Israel the right to practice their own faith. Certainly then, it extended to Jews as well.
BG did come, and not a soul in the Prime Minister’s Office had the slightest reservation or lifted an eyebrow.
Now if Nelson Glueck was charisma and authority personified, Reform Rabbi Moshe Zemer seemed to embody humility and diffidence.
He entered my two-small-room office (one for the secretary and one for me) with quiet courtesy.
Why did he come to see me? Kollek had appointed me director of the newly created Overseas Division. Its responsibilities included coordinating overseas information, initiating new information activities, and building bridges with Diaspora communities.
In that capacity, I hoped to make Jerusalem home to the world centers of Jewish religious movements. He naturally saw this as a key to Israel-Diaspora relations, and a way of furthering Ben-Gurion’s Israelocentric view of the Jewish people.
Moshe Zemer, after his ordination at Hebrew Union College in 1960, had spent a few years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, building on the doctorate he had earned at HUC. Here the Israel bug entered his bloodstream, and Mel Zager became Moshe Zemer. Being a rabbi in Baltimore was not his dream; he convinced the Reform movement to support his efforts to create Reform congregations in Israel. He came to see me also in 1963.
At that time there were two reform synagogues in Israel, as Rabbi Uri Regev recently reminded me: Harel in Jerusalem and Leo Baeck in Haifa, both started by “Yekkes” – German Jews. There was a struggling new congregation in Kfar Shmaryahu, where Moshe planned to begin his work. I had my private doubts whether the country was ready for his efforts, but encouraged him and invited him to turn to me if there were ways I could help. As I recall, we met a few times more.
A few weeks before Rosh Hashana, the head of the local council of Kfar Shmaryahu telephoned. Was he allowed to rent a council facility for Reform services? “Of course,” I told him. A few days later the head of the local council of Upper Nazareth called. Same question. Same answer.
MOSHE ZEMER went on to form a number of Reform congregations and also played a significant scholarly role at HUC Jerusalem for the Israel Reform Movement.
The Prime Minister’s Office had given sanction to the Reform Seminary in Jerusalem and to new Reform synagogues.
What of the Conservatives? Here we see how personalities influence history: Nelson Glueck and Louis Finkelstein – almost opposites. Nelson Glueck was a scholar who uncovered the secrets of how the Semitic Nabataeans trapped the sparse water of the desert to make centers of agriculture in the sand. A man of action, he was – during World War II – an asset of the US Office of Strategic Affairs, who had ridden the great Arab desert on camelback with the Beduin.
Rabbi Louis Finkelstein was a desk bound scholar, famed for his work on the Pharisees, and an expert on Halakha. As chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary he was the central figure in making Conservative Judaism into a great force in North America in the 20th century. As determined as he was to spread Jewish observance and learning in the United States, so was he timid in his approach to Zionism and to Israel.
TWO ANECDOTES illustrate the differences.
When Glueck planned the groundbreaking ceremony for HUC Jerusalem, he arranged for a procession of senior American faculty in full academic regalia from the King David Hotel lobby to the empty lot a hundred paces way – flamboyant and a great photo op.
Chancellor Louis Finkelstein was invited to lunch by the minister of Religious Affairs, Zerach Warhaftig of the National Religious Party, at a Jerusalem hotel.
Dr. Finkelstein, “Please come to where I am staying (the ultra-Orthodox Pension Reich in Beit Hakerem). I cannot eat at the hotel you suggested because its waiters write orders on Shabbat.” The point being that if the hotel employees desecrate Shabbat, the hotel cannot be trusted for kashrut.
In essence, privately, Finkelstein was actually Orthodox, and therefore hesitated to introduce Conservatism into Israel lest it provoke a clash with the Israeli Orthodox.
Pressures must have been exerted on the chancellor, because one day, I was advised by the consul for Jewish Affairs in New York that Vice Chancellor Bernard Mandelbaum would be coming to find a site for a center for JTS rabbinical students to spend a year’s study in Jerusalem.
Soon we were on first-name terms and spent a number of days touring Jerusalem, on the prowl for locations. I urged Bernie to take the empty site next to Yeshurun Synagogue on King George Avenue, a prime location which also made historic sense. The construction of Yeshurun had actually been financed by the American Conservative movement in the 1920s, a fact not broadcast by the Orthodox national-religious members of nowadays.
Rabbi Mandelbaum obviously had been instructed by his chancellor not to make ripples, and eventually chose a lot above Nayot just behind the Israel Museum of today. The location became known as Neve Schechter. Today a multiplicity of programs have evolved there, and from a student body of 15 or 20 at its beginnings, has become a rich conglomeration of Judaic studies. It also trains and ordains Israeli rabbis, and serves as the center for the Masorati (Traditionalist) movement in Israel, as the Conservatives call themselves here.
The same may be said of HUC Jerusalem.
Both seminaries have one-year studies for overseas rabbinical students and a variety of programs and centers. The Reform here have called themselves the Movement for Progressive Judaism (Yahadut Mitkademet).
The World Center for Progressive Judaism is also located on the HUC Jerusalem campus, now extended with the addition of Beit Shmuel.
IN THE over 50 years that have elapsed since the Reform and Conservative movements established centers here, major demographic and political seismic changes have marked Israeli civic life. This has led to the inevitable clash between the ultra-Orthodox and the progressive and traditionalist communities.
Though both movements in Israel are small (fewer than a combined 100 synagogues out of the estimated 10,000 synagogues in Israel), the conflict is not about political power. It is about freedom of religion.
It is also about the difference between prime ministers. Once upon a time, the prime minister believed in freedom of religion – even for Jews. 
Avraham Avi-hai was world chairman of United Israel Appeal-Keren Hayesod from 1978 to 1988.