Israeli Chief Rabbi doesn’t name Pittsburgh shooting site a synagogue
Pittsburgh shooting

Israeli Chief Rabbi doesn’t name Pittsburgh shooting site a synagogue

Government minister and country's opposition leader criticise Ashkenazi chief David Lau after his remarks

Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau
Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau

An Israeli government minister and the country’s opposition leader called on Israel to recognise the liberal streams of Judaism in the wake of the shooting at a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 worshippers dead.

On Sunday, the country’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, added fuel to the debate when he referred to the Tree of Life Congregation as “a place with a profound Jewish flavour” and not a synagogue, angering some non-Orthodox leaders.

In a tweet on Monday morning, Deputy Minister Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said: “The Conservative Jews of Pittsburgh were sufficiently Jewish to be killed because they were Jews but their movement is not recognised by the Jewish State. Israel must bolster these communities, already challenged by assimilation, by strengthening our ties with them.”

The American-born Oren, in his Hebrew tweet and not his English-language tweet on the same topic: “I call on Minister Bennett not to suffice with condolences, but to recognise liberal Jewish streams and unite the people.”

He was referring to the fact that Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as Diaspora Minister, flew to Pittsburgh in order to visit the synagogue, meet with the local Jewish community and participate in the funerals of those killed in the attack

His tweet came even as Lau referred to Tree of Life as “a place with a profound Jewish flavour,” and not a synagogue.  “I’ll say one simple thing: Any murder of a Jew in any corner of the world, because they are Jewish, is unforgivable, it’s a crime that cannot, under any circumstances, be ignored,” Lau also told the Makor Rishon newspaper.

Responding in an interview in the Washington Post, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said, “This tragedy should bring all Jews together, not rip us further apart.” He added, “It’s unconscionable that any rabbi worth their name would question the Jewishness of those worshiping on Shabbat in a synagogue shattered by murder and the blood of Jews.”

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is made up of Charedi leaders who do not recognise the non-Orthodox movements as legitimate Jewish streams, although they do regard their followers as Jews if they otherwise are Jewish under halachah, or Jewish law. The non-Orthodox movements have long objected to their disenfranchisement in Israel, and have called on the Israeli government to recognise their movement and its rabbis for issues like marriage, burial and conversion to Judaism.

Opposition leader Avi Gabbay, in an interview with Ynet, also called on the government “to embrace the Reform and Conservative movements and to pass the Western Wall plan” for an egalitarian prayer space, a long-standing request of the non-Orthodox movements.

Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition party Yesh Atid, echoed Gabbay and Oren in calling for recognition of the liberal streams of Judaism.

“If you are murdered because you are a Jew, then you are a Jew,” he said in a statement also posted on Facebook. “The Conservative and Reform are our brothers. They are our family.”

Lapid also referred to Bennett’s condolence visit to Pittsburgh. “[T]he relationship with the majority of U.S. Jews cannot be based on condolences and grief,” Lapid said, referring to Bennett.  “We cannot bring back the dead, but we have a duty to fix our relationship with the living.”

Gabbay, however, also touched a third rail of Israel-Diaspora relations when, reacting to the synagogue shooting, he called “upon the Jews of the United States to immigrate more and more to Israel, because this is their home.”

Many Jews in the Diaspora bristle when Israeli leaders suggest that they would be safer or happier in Israel.

Oren responded to the call for immigration, tweeting in Hebrew: “Avi Gabbay said things that should not be said because he simply does not understand. Through his words he adds insult to injury. The call to U.S. Jewry, especially after last night, deeply hurts their feelings and reduces their desire for aliyah. Gabbay does not understand anything about Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.”


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