It was supposed to be a day of joy. The families of nine Israeli children on the autism spectrum, who had spent months training for their bar mitzva days with specially trained staff and rabbis from the Masorti movement, were to celebrate a rite of passage from which children like them had long been excluded. Masorti, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, has been running these special-needs b’nei mitzva services for two decades, seeing a need that was unmet and providing a pluralistic alternative to the religious status quo in Israel.
Instead, according to Masorti leaders, the families “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.” Masorti professionals who have worked with the children were not informed of the ceremony, the statement said.
The story of the b’nei mitzva is tangled and dispiriting. A pluralistic ceremony to be held in Rehovot last month was nixed by the city’s Orthodox mayor, and an alternative ceremony to be held under the auspices of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, ran aground after days of mutual recrimination. Although both sides claimed to have been misunderstood, the controversy speaks to the inevitable tensions that arise when Jewish religious life in Israel is officially dominated by a single movement. Just last week, Israel’s new minister of religious affairs, David Azoulay, called the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.”
American Jews take pluralism for granted, and non-Orthodox movement leaders in Israel complain that Israeli Jews are alienated from religion precisely because progressive alternatives are shown no respect and denied all-important government funding. Israelis are deprived of religious meaning on their own terms, and Orthodox authorities are seen by the majority, sometimes unfairly, as irrelevant or coercive. It is a controversy that benefits no one.
Israel has enough problems outside the family. Surely, wise minds can solve this clash among brothers and sisters.