Canceled bar mitzvah highlights religious rift in Israel

AP News
Posted: Jun 08, 2015 4:18 PM
Canceled bar mitzvah highlights religious rift in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — Liberal Jews in Israel are accusing the country's president of discriminating against them by calling off a bar mitzvah ceremony at his residence.

At the heart of the dispute is a proposed bar mitzvah for boys with disabilities scheduled to be held at the residence of President Reuven Rivlin. The ceremony was sponsored by the Conservative Judaism movement, which — despite its name— is more liberal than the Orthodox movement that dominates Israel.

Rivlin's office and the ceremony's sponsors could not agree on how the ceremony would be conducted. Each now blames the other for the eventual cancellation.

In a letter sent to Rivlin this month, Israeli and American leaders of the Conservative Judaism movement wrote that, "The sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel's leaders for the sponsors of this program."

The letter added that denying the boys their bar mitzvah was "an act of cruelty."

The dispute highlights the long-simmering conflict between the Orthodox mainstream in Israel and the Reform and Conservative Judaism movements, which make up the majority of the American Jewish population but are marginal in Israel.

The Orthodox establishment rules many aspects of life inside Israel, such as marriage, divorce, conversions and burials. Liberal groups have struggled to make inroads inside the Jewish state and the Orthodox rabbinate has refused to recognize their rulings as religiously valid.

Rivlin's largely ceremonial office is meant to act as a moral compass for the country. Rivlin has championed civil liberties and promoted pluralism and tolerance, though he has derided Reform Judaism in the past.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform Jewish movement, said he was unfamiliar with the details of the bar mitzvah dispute but commended the conservatives for their initiative. He added that Rivlin has been respectful to all streams of Judaism since taking office.

Naomi Toledano-Kandel, Rivlin's spokeswoman, said it wasn't the role of the president's office to intervene in such a contentious political topic.

"We are not the place that will decide the religious war," she said.