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Reform Leader Boycotts Israel’s President at Zionist Meeting Over Non-Recognition of Reform Judaism in Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
July - August 2006

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America’s Union for Reform Judaism, decided not to meet with Israel’s president during the 35th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in June.  
The Forward (June 23, 2006) reports: “Rabbi Yoffie chose the congress as the venue for a protest against Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s refusal to address him as ‘rabbi.’ Yoffie, who heads the largest Jewish organization in North America, opted not to meet with the president, as he typically does when visiting Israel. The decision, made in coordination with local Reform leadership in Israel, was meant to express his displeasure with comments made by Katsav during a televised interview last October, in which the president stated his unwillingness to recognize ordained Reform movement leaders as rabbis until Israel’s Knesset does so. Israeli law grants control over marriage, divorce and other personal status matters to recognized faith communities. Jewish ceremonies are under the control of the state’s chief rabbinate, which is Orthodox-led and does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism.  
An opinion essay in the newspaper Ha’aretz declared that if Katsav cannot refer to Yoffie as rabbi, he shouldn’t be visited by him or by any other American Jewish leader. Rabbi Yoffie, speaking of Katsav’s position, declared: “It’s an insult to the loyalties and commitments of the million-and-a-half Reform Jews in North America for whom their rabbis are by far the most important Jewish influence, To them, to say their rabbis can’t be addressed as rabbis is profoundly hurtful.”  
According to The Forward, “Yoffie isn’t the first to openly balk at Katsav’s stance. Several years ago, a delegation from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, headed by the school’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson, was invited to visit Katsav during a visit by board members to the college’s Jerusalem campus. After Katsav’s office insisted that Ellenson be addressed as professor rather than as rabbi, the delegation opted not to meet with the president.”  
Editorially, the International Jerusalem Post (June 30-July 6, 2006) notes that while President Katsav has opened his office to non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in a gracious manner, he “is trying to walk a line between the Reform movement and the Orthodox rabbinate and not to offend either side. Rather than courting controversy, he seems to be seeking to avoid it. But linguistic tricks will not obscure Katsav’s decision to at least partially side with the Orthodox denial of the legitimacy of Reform Judaism. Katsav says he has no choice but to take this stance. This is not true. He can choose to gently lead the nation in a different direction rather than accepting the status quo.”  
The Post is critical of Rabbi Yoffie’s refusal to meet with Katsav but concludes that, “Yoffie is right that Katsav, as the holder of the office that should be most attuned to fostering Jewish unity, should not be neutral toward the shunning by official Israeli religious authorities of the movements that represent the majority of Diaspora Jewry. But rather than returning his snub in kind, Yoffie should be raising the priority of building an Israeli constituency for non-Orthodox religious movements.”  
The Yoffie-Katsav incident came just as the Reform movement in Israel inaugurated a $12 million cultural center in Jaffa. The facility, to open officially in October, will be called Nishkenot Daniel. The decision to put it in Jaffa was part of the movement’s efforts to reach out to middle and working-class families in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Its inauguration coincided with the first convention of the Association of Reform Zionists in Israel to be held within Israel. The center is to include a youth hostel, auditorium, classrooms and a synagogue.  
Writing in Washington Jewish Week (June 29, 2006), Douglas Bloomfield declared that, “Keeping American Jewry engaged in pro- Israel political activism and philanthropy got a bit tougher ... when the president of Israel essentially told most American Jews that their spiritual leaders aren’t Jewish enough for him or the country’s religious establishment. That’s the message in Moshe Katsav’s refusal to address Rabbi Eric Yoffie ... as ‘rabbi.’ If this were an isolated act by a single thoughtless politician, it could easily be dismissed, but it is part of a larger pattern that threatens to drive Israel and American Jewry further apart. ... Katsav reflects the attitude of Israel’s muscular religious establishment that says technically you may be Jewish if your mother was, but your rabbi ain’t no rabbi.”  
In Bloomfield’s view, “Never has it been easier or more comfortable to be Jewish in America ... So when people like the president of Israel, one of the country’s most prominent writers and the state’s religious establishment tell the overwhelming majority of American Jews they’re not Jewish enough, it shakes the pillars of Israel’s support here ... A 2002 survey by the Jewish Agency for Israel found growing ambivalence toward Israel on the part of American Jewry, and declining feelings of attachment, particularly among those under 35. Four in five see the American Jewish community as ‘critical to Israel’s survival,’ but fewer than three in five consider Israel ‘critical to sustaining American Jewish life.’ President Katsav did nothing to change their minds. It’s a problem the Israeli and American Jewish leadership can’t afford to ignore any longer.”

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