December 11, 2018

Tough love for Israel: Outrage in Rehovot

With the Celebrate Israel Festival coming up this Sunday at Rancho Park, I thought it’d be an ideal time to write a love letter expressing my unabashed and unconditional attachment to Israel. But as much as I’d still like to do that, that column will have to wait for another week, because right now my mind is too upset about something that happened recently in the holy land.

It’s a little story that barely made the news, but it speaks to a growing cancer inside the Jewish state, the cancer of religious intolerance.

It was brought to my attention two weeks ago when I had lunch with Yizhar Hess, who runs the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel.

In a nutshell, this is what happened: A Charedi mayor of an Israeli town decided to cancel a planned bar mitzvah ceremony for four boys with autism because the ceremony would be taking place in a Conservative, rather than an Orthodox, synagogue.

This special program for boys and girls was launched about 20 years ago by the Masorti movement, and it was introduced last year to the Lotem School in Rehovot, a school run by the municipality that accepts special-needs children from all religious backgrounds. Masorti trains the kids for months in preparation for the big day when they are called to the Torah.

Most of the kids trained in the program have severe autism, so the program developed creative ways to help them recite blessings, such as by pressing buttons on a tablet that plays a recording of the individual blessings. Needless to say, being able to have such a ceremony is an incredibly moving experience for the kids and their families. 

But in Rehovot this year, just days before the ceremony was scheduled to take place, the mayor, Rahamim Malul, cancelled it by prohibiting the staff at the school from participating in the event. According to Hess, it was a chain reaction that began when a Charedi mother at the school (who did not have a child in the Bar-Bat Mitzvah program) complained to the Charedi head rabbi of Rehovot (Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook) who called Charedi MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) who then called Malul.

Suddenly, a program that has been running successfully for years across the country succumbed to the whims of a small group of Charedim. Now, the special-needs kids and their families, who were looking forward to their big day, are in simcha limbo.

My friend Rabbi Uri Regev, who runs Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance in Israel, wrote: “Even if acquiescing to a few parents who did not want to take part in a Masorti event were justified, this should have happened months earlier when the process of preparing for the bar/bat mitzvahs began, so that the simcha not be ruined only two days before the joyous event.”

Some stories are so preposterous, so cruel, that you just reach a breaking point and say, “OK, enough.”

I know, this whole story is preposterous, and yet somewhat familiar. It’s hardly the first time we’ve heard of religious intolerance in a country where a powerful Charedi-led Chief Rabbinate runs the show and imposes its will. But some stories are so preposterous, so cruel, that you just reach a breaking point and say, “OK, enough.”

Canceling a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for special needs kids – at the last minute – is one of those breaking points.

Every Orthodox person I’ve spoken to shares the outrage. When I asked my friend Shaul Farber, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who runs an organization (ITIM) that confronts the rigid ways of the Chief Rabbinate, what he thought of the story, his reply was, “I’m horrified.”

So am I.

What is especially disheartening is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his desperation to build a governing coalition, has embraced and empowered this intolerant force by bringing two Charedi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, inside his new government.

Need I add that these two parties are squarely against recognizing the legitimacy of any other denominations of Judaism, such as Reform and Conservative?

In any event, the immediate question now is: What will happen to these four boys and their simcha?

Given how infuriating this story is, it’s starting to gain some public traction (including a report by Michelle Wolf, our blogger on special needs). On May 6, a group of prominent Conservative rabbis and leaders sent a letter to Netanyahu urging him to “ensure the rights of every Israeli, especially those who are most vulnerable,” and “to stand up for what is just and fair for these children, and what is right for the Jewish people.”

Every rabbi and every Jew must endorse that letter. The dark image of rejecting a b’nai mitzvah ceremony for any child with special needs must haunt the conscience of Israel’s Charedi establishment.

A few months ago, I interviewed the Charedi Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Baruch Lau, at a public event in the San Fernando Valley. The rabbi spoke eloquently that night about the Jewish values of loving our fellow Jew, Jewish unity and Kiddush Hashem (honoring God’s name).

Well, if he’s reading this, I have an easy way for him to demonstrate all three values: Drive down to Rehovot immediately and make this simcha happen.

That is my love letter to Israel.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at