A broad spectrum of Jewish leaders in the Greater MetroWest area reacted with anger and alarm to remarks made by Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, suggesting that Reform Jews cannot be considered Jewish.
Azoulay’s remarks, which he later walked back, were the latest in a series of flashpoints between Israeli officials and representatives of the non-Orthodox denominations.
While hesitant to criticize Israel on security matters, American-Jewish leaders have been forthright in demanding respect for the Reform and Conservative movements.
The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which has worked for 20 years to promote religious pluralism in Israel, was quick to condemn Azoulay’s statements.
“Continued statements and related policy decisions like this will surely result in deepening the gap between Diaspora Jews — particularly the younger generation — and the State of Israel,” the federation said in a statement (see sidebar).
Amir Shacham, the federation’s associate executive vice president for Israel and overseas, told NJJN that questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements — which represent the majority of affiliated Jews in North America — complicates pro-Israel advocacy.
“It makes things much more complicated for us in the organized Jewish world,” said Shacham from the federation’s Jerusalem office. “Our main goal is to convince Jews, especially of the younger generation, that their relationship with Israel is a crucial component of their Jewish identity. When something like this comes about it makes it more difficult because some young people think, ‘This is not the Israel we want to connect with.’”
Azoulay made his original remarks July 2 in an interview with Army Radio.
“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” he said. “These are Jews that have lost their way, and we must ensure that every Jew returns to the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone with love and joy.”
In an earlier interview he called Reform Jews “a disaster for the people of Israel.”
Within a day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he “rejects the offensive statements” of the minister, who represents the fervently Orthodox Shas party. Although Azoulay said his remarks had been “exploited” by opponents and that “Jews are Jews,” he nonetheless asserted that Reform Judaism is a “sin” and that it “brought the greatest danger to the Jewish nation: assimilation.”
Azoulay’s words stung Jewish leaders who insist that non-Orthodox Judaism actually provides a needed alternative for secular Israeli Jews who otherwise shun Israel’s Orthodox-dominated religious life.
Noga Maliniak, who directs the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s Mack Ness Fund in Israel’s Negev region, is a founder and former president of Kehilat Bavat Ayin, a Reform synagogue of 100 families in the Israeli town of Rosh Ha’ayin.
Unlike most Orthodox synagogues in Israel, it receives no financial support from the government. On a recent visit to New Jersey, Maliniak told NJJN that Azoulay’s statements “make me so angry I cannot explain to you how much. He is not representing the majority of the Jews in Israel.”
Then, in a second conversation, she said, “Actually, his remarks are helping us. We are receiving a lot of new interest in Reform Judaism.”
Local congregational rabbis were also critical of Azoulay’s remarks.
Azoulay “is an ultra-Orthodox Jew and as such I don’t expect him to have a different perspective,” said Rabbi Daniel Cohen of the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. “But when he speaks as a minister of the Jewish state, which represents all Israeli Jewish citizens and is speaking to world Jewry, it is problematic. I don’t think this reflects well on Israel, and I don’t think it is reasonable for a minister of Israel to be making statements like the one he did.”
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, immediate past chair of the board and executive board member of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel and the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, has worked for decades on religious pluralism issues.
“I am glad Netanyahu denounced his statement but I think it should have been stronger,” he told NJJN. Silverstein called Azoulay’s words “outrageous statements that are a reflection of what happens when an unsuited person is appointed to a position of responsibility. It is certainly not helpful or productive.”
Non-Orthodox American Jews have long been frustrated by Israel’s religious policy, formulated and supervised by Azoulay’s ministry, which holds a monopoly on marriage, divorce, conversion, and burial there. In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate recognizes only Orthodox conversions.
The Chief Rabbinate has also been critical of the policies of some prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and Avi Weiss of Riverdale, NY.
The rejection of non-Orthodox Judaism stretches beyond Azoulay’s office. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, when he was still a Knesset member, visited Temple Emanu-El of Westfield in 1989 and referred to the Reform synagogue’s service as “idol worship and not Judaism.” Rivlin has made conciliatory gestures since entering office, though controversy returned last month after Rivlin allegedly excluded a Conservative rabbi from a bar mitzva ceremony for children with special needs held at his residence.
In a July 9 e-mail to NJJN, Menashe East, the Modern Orthodox rabbi of Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, wrote, “Minister Azoulay’s comments are very unfortunate and irresponsible…. The path of Halacha to which Minister Azoulay subscribes seeks to preference certain Jews and distance Jews that are not like him. This attitude is inconsistent with traditional Jewish values, which seek to include and embrace, with love….
“Minister Azoulay is serving as a poor ambassador for halachic inclusion and for Jewish peoplehood.”
With reporting by JTA