Tuesday, June 16, 2015

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT

I've been having an exchange of letters with President Rivlin and his representative about the recent controversy related to the proposed B'nai Mitzvah service, which was originally supposed to be led by a Conservative rabbi.  Here is the correspondence:

Dear President Rivlin:

In 2010 my wife and I made Aliyah from Sacramento, California.  We now live on Rehov Harlap, within 100 meters of Beit HaNasi.  I gave up a highly successful business in Sacramento, and we left our family and friends in California to live in our homeland, Israel.  Our youngest child, our daughter, also made Aliyah around the same time.   We sold our 300 meter suburban home and the three of us now live in a 50 meter apartment that is three flights up with no elevator.

Prior to making Aliyah I was President of Sacramento’s Conservative (Masorti) synagogue.  My wife had been President of the local Jewish Federation.  We were both active supporters of AIPAC and were active in many other ways in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.  No one in either the Jewish or the general community ever questioned our Jewishness.  No one ever considered us other than first-class and full Jews.

But here in Israel, because I am a Conservative/Masorti Jew, I am treated as less than a first-class, full Jew.  My movement is treated differently than the Orthodox movement.  My rabbi cannot preside at the wedding of my daughter.  I am constantly told that I am less of Jew.  Despite my commitment and my sacrifice, my Judaism is questioned.

Your recent refusal to host a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi is a painful, bitter disappointment to me.  Since you became President, I have admired your work to reach out to Israeli minority citizens and to encourage all Israelis to feel equal and included.  But to me, a committed Jew, you joined the rest of the established powers and said “No, you are not completely included as part of the Jewish people in Israel.  Because you are a Conservative Jew, you are not equal.”  Your message is a terrible blow.  When you should have continued to lead toward an inclusive, equal, tolerant Israel, you instead reinforced an unequal, exclusive, painful Judaism in Israel.



I never miss an opportunity to encourage other Diaspora Jews of all streams to make Aliyah.  I tell them that only in Israel does a Jew feel completely fulfilled, living according to the Jewish calendar and infusing all of life with Judaism.  The statement that you made when you refused to participate in the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony with a Conservative/Masorti rabbi undercuts my efforts and sends a message of exclusion.  It sends a non-welcoming message to non-Orthodox Jews.

I urge you to apologize to those Conservative/Masorti Jews who were hurt and insulted by your recent decision.  I urge you to vigorously support the equal treatment of all Jewish denominations and all Jewish people here in Israel.  Make Israel an inclusive, supportive home for all Jews.

Respectfully,

Alan Edelstein



Hello,

Thank you for your enquiry about which the President has asked me to respond to you.  I want to make quite clear that the Bar-Mitzvah children, together with the parents and teachers of the Lotam school in Rehovot are still very much welcome and invited to celebrate at the President's Residence together with representatives of the Masorti Movement.

Our door is open to all, and we believe firmly that what is important is the happiness and well-being of the children, and that they should not be embroiled in political or religious disagreements. This is has always been, and will continue to be the case.

The President's Residence is not a religious institution, nor is it a house of prayer. It is our duty not to be involved in religious disputes, but to ensure that the platform of the President's Office, is not used to fan the flames of rivalry between different religious factions.

Over the past year, the President has on a number of occasions met with open arms, and held positive and warm meetings, with representatives and leaders of the Masorti/Conservative Movement. Dialogue, as well as arguments, must be constructive, and not conducted under threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument 'for the sake of Heaven'.

Warm regards,

Anat Ben-David
Public Affairs & Community relations Department
Office of the President



Ms. Ben-David:

Thank you very much for your response to my letter.  I understand that, out of necessity, it is a standard letter drafted in response to the many objections the President received regarding this issue.  Unfortunately, it does not respond to my concerns.

Firstly, you write “Dialogue, as well as arguments, must be constructive, and not conducted under threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument 'for the sake of Heaven'.”  I believe that my arguments were constructive, and my e-mail did not include any “threats or accusations that bear no resemblance to an argument ‘for the sake of Heaven.’”  So I have no idea why that would be included in a response to me.

Secondly, you write that the children, along with representative of the Masorti Movement, are welcome at the President’s residence.  That is very much appreciated, I am sure, but we know that representatives being welcomed is not the issue at hand.  The issue is whether Masorti rabbis and, even more importantly, Israeli citizens who are Masorti Jews, are accorded completely equal status and treatment to Orthodox rabbis and Jews.  We all know that we are not accorded such status and treatment.  The refusal to allow a Masorti rabbi to conduct a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony, whether in Rana’ana or in Beit HaNasi, is simply the latest and the most blatant and glaring representation of that inequality.  And, as I wrote previously, it is the most hurtful.  It reverberates to the core.

Thirdly, your e-mail goes to great lengths to stress that the President and the President’s Residence do not involve themselves in religious and political disagreements.  I must, respectfully, say that this appears to me to be a very disingenuous argument on your part.  Virtually every day the President calls out for equal and respectful treatment of our Israeli citizens, for our gay and lesbian citizens, for our religious minorities, for our Palestinian neighbors.

I wholeheartedly support the President’s efforts and respect him for them.  That is what makes his conduct toward the Masorti rabbinate and the movement generally even more painful and insulting.  When it comes to us, somehow he cannot call for equal treatment and basic fairness.  Suddenly, his office and home are not the place for religion and politics.  He cannot even allow a Masorti rabbi to conduct a B’nai Mitzvah service for disabled children, a Mitzvah if there ever was one. This is incongruent with what he rightfully does every day.

Finally, I will just recall last summer’s experience, when our entire family, including our then-10 week old granddaughter, was visiting us here in Israel.  As we traveled around the country and repeatedly endured Tzeva Adom’s and ran for shelter, I do not recall those missiles distinguishing between denominations of Jews.  If they didn’t, I don’t think the President or the State should either.

Respectfully,

Alan Edelstein

P.S.  As I mentioned in my prior e-mail, I live within 100 meters of Beit HaNasi.  If you or the President or any of his representatives would like to discuss this issue in person, I would be happy to walk over.


(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

For speaking engagements:  ae@edelsteinstrategies.com



18 comments:

  1. Important letter – my family is also Masorti-Reform background – so appreciate your writing this.

    Yishar Koach!

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  2. You're so good at complaining...twice the opportunity to practice your craft!

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  3. I read these letters with great interest. You not only have this issue to deal with but your American friends like myself who question your government and your leaders all the time. I admire all you are doing.

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  4. Ahh, I'm just cancelling my planned trip to Israel with my family. I think I can find a more welcoming place. I'll wait until Conservative Jews can find equality there as we do in the US. Although I've been to Israel twice and found it inspiring and soul-warming, this deepening power grab by the Haredi cannot be tolerated.

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    1. Really sorry to hear that. That is the last reaction I would want to cause. Yes, this is a problem and we must fight the battle, not disengage. This our homeland. As you noted, it is enriching and inspiring, albeit at times frustrating. Now is not the time to disengage, but to come. Visit Masorti and Reform institutions. Learn more about the issues. And enjoy yourself. By the way, I would say that it is inaccurate to characterize it as a "deepening power grab." In recent years we have made progress in getting more Haredi to train for jobs and to join the Army. I would say that some of what we now see is a reaction to the religious feeling threatened. Of course, we are concerned that the new government may try to repeal some of the progress we have recently made, and we will be fighting that. What we really need is for about 500,000 to 750,000 non-Orthodox Jews to make Aliyah and to vote. We saw how this country changed when the Jews from the former Soviet Union came. I can only imagine what would happen if a sizeable number of committed, activist non-Orthodox Jews came. Far-fetched? Yes. But as someone once said, "If you will it. . . . "

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  5. It was a painful pleasure to read your powerful Random Thoughts letters to the President.

    His directing that pathetic response from an unprofessional subordinate, presents the unfortunate shortcomings in the character of man at the heart of so many problems.

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  6. It is always a pleasure to read your eloquent writing, and always painful to read about the situations you describe. I guess you wouldn’t be writing if it weren’t about an important and distressing situation.

    Thanks for educating all of us.

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  7. Very good letter and response Alan!

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  8. I feel your pain, but that is the inherent tension living in a Jewish state that is a democracy to the extent that Jewish is a religious concept. God help Israel if the Arabs ever decide to be a partner for peace in the Middle East.

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  9. Thanks Alan. When Betsy and I lived in Israel, we were members of the Masorti congregation on Miller street in Rehovot. It is disheartening (at best) to read how the ultraorthodox continue to define who is a Jew in Israel. Keep writing letters, and we will too. It is the only way to generate change.

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  10. Well said, Alan. Too bad Pres. Rivlin didn't have you draft Anat's response. (I received exactly the same e-mail, by the way.)

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  11. Well done Alan. Keep up the fight. However, I am more concerned that current make up of the government will take three steps back for every one gained in recent years for Conservative Jews. Why secular Israelis won't stand up against the intolerant Haredis in beyond comprehension. But such is the apathy of religious politics.

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  12. Elegantly and courteously stated Alan, without mincing words and while sticking to your points.

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  13. KOL HAKAVOD!
    What a powerful and poignant letter

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  14. It never ceases to amaze me that those who profess to act in conformity with the teachings of Torah, to revere the sages, to perform mitzvot, and in all ways show their devotion to G-d, often refuse to be guided by a fundamental principle of faith as expressed by Hillel: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, the rest is the explanation; go and learn it." and as Rabbi Akiva said, "Love your fellow as yourself--this is a great principle of Torah."

    While I do not pretend to be a sage, I pose the following questions for President Rivlin: How do your actions comport with the fundamental principles of Torah expressed by these sages and Rabbi's ? Does impeding/preventing the performance of a mitvah at your synagogue encourage and/or foster greater devotion to G-d? How so?


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