Masorti Judaism Disenfranchised

In this week’s post, I share with you a press release put out by the Masorti Foundation a week ago describing the disappointing events in Rehovot, Israel involving a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony for disabled children, the Masorti Movement and the Orthodox Rabbinate. While the majority of the Israeli public, and the majority of world Jewry, support a pluralistic approach to the practice of Judaism in Israel, the official Orthodox Rabbinate retains full control over how official, state-run institutions must practice religion. The grip on state-sanctioned aspects of Judaism by the Orthodox is ingrained in the political system, as the most recent coalition agreement engineered by the Likud party after the March election demonstrated again.

It is truly unfortunate that the emotional and spiritual needs of a group of Israeli children with disabilities were overlooked in deference to a narrow view of Jewish law. And it is disheartening that an entire movement of Jews who wish to practice Judaism in keeping with a time honored, historically legitimate and compelling ideology are thwarted by a small minority of narrow minded Orthodox rabbis and leaders who have the backing of the government. Some would say that these matters are the business of the Israelis and that if the Israeli public wants things to be different, then they will vote for Knesset members who will change the system. I would argue that the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews is more complex than that, and that it is reasonable for the Zionist project to be shaped and influenced by world Jewry, not only those who live in Israel.

Please read the message that follows and ask yourself if it is fair that the Masorti Movement, which has invested itself in physically and spiritually in bringing Israelis closer to Judaism, should be demeaned and disenfranchised by a small government-backed minority. If you feel that what is happening is not at all fair, then respond by strengthening the Masorti Movement so it can broadcast its message even louder and with greater passion.

The new week dawned dreary for the families of the children with autism who had been working for six months towards a participatory and inclusive Bar Mitzvah ceremony with specially trained Masorti staff and rabbis in Israel. 

Through the auspices of the Masorti Foundation, a groundbreaking B’nai Mitzvah program for almost 4,000 children with disabilities has been held for the past two decades in 500 services all over Israel (click here to read more about the program).

While the interpretation of Halacha practiced by Israel’s official rabbinate prohibits those with such disabilities from being counted in a minyan or being called to the Torah, Masorti’s understanding of Halacha provides religious training and welcomes each individual into the fellowship of the Jewish People.

The previously cancelled, much-publicized and greatly compromised event was held yesterday but it was a shadow of what had originally been planned, say Masorti leaders.

The families of nine B’nai Mitzvah with autism found themselves spectators at a shell of a ceremony at an Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot, presided over by a rabbi whom they did not know but who filled a single requirement: being Orthodox. The atmosphere was gloomy and tense, reported observers.

On Sunday (a day in which the Torah is not read publicly by any Jews), the children were virtually passive spectators in an almost joyless ceremony, despite the extensive training they had undergone. 

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein of Rehovot and other Masorti professionals – who had worked extensively with the children –were excluded by the event’s planners. This shadow Bar Mitzvah ceremony was the culmination of a drama that began in early May when Rahamim Malul, the mayor of Rehovot, cancelled the original B’nai Mitzvah ceremony on the eve of the event because it was to be held in a Masorti synagogue.  The story of the narrow minded, rigid Orthodox mayor and the kids with disabilities provoked outrage in Jewish communities around the world.

Shortly thereafter, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin further infuriated non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world by reneging on an agreement to which he was a full partner to host the event at his official residence to be co-officiated by an Orthodox and Conservative Rabbi. Instead, he issued a public invitation to an exclusively Orthodox ceremony without any warning. 

At the time of Mayor Malul’s cancellation of the ceremony, Rabbi Goldstein wrote, in an essay that ran in the Times of Israel, “In Israel, there is no freedom of religion for Jews: it’s either the Orthodox way or no way. Any official, state-run Jewish institution is Orthodox. There is an unholy alliance of politics and religion in Israel that has led many Jews to reject Judaism outright.”

Shock does not adequately capture the reaction of the Masorti leadership in Israel when they found out, after the fact, about the staged B’nai Mitzvah ceremony that took place yesterday, said Rabbi Robert B. Slosberg, chairman of the Masorti Foundation.

“What happened, in essence, is that the children, who had all volunteered to be in our program were taken to an unfamiliar synagogue, propped up and posed for a photo-op instead of being given a legitimate and respectful Bar Mitzvah ceremony,” said Rabbi Slosberg. “We were neither invited nor informed of the ceremony. In a situation where all services for children with disabilities are provided by the municipality, Mayor Malul coerced these parents and their children into participating in a sham ceremony, and spat in the face of Masorti Judaism.”

“This is a pattern of intolerance against non-Orthodox Judaism”, added Laura Lewis, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation. ”Just last week, Israel’s new minister of religious affairs, David Azoulay, called the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.” 

In the disappointing aftermath of the B’nai Mitzvah debacle in Rehovot, the Masorti Foundation is discussing its next steps. An emergency mission to Israel is in the works, with high-level government meetings.  

For further information on the Masorti Foundation, please visit www.masorti.org.

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