by Rabbi Rick Jacobs
I doubted whether a former Likud MK would include a Reform leader in his orbit. But the respect President Rivlin initially showed me personally has been extended to Jews across the denominational spectrum of Judaism.
For the past seven years I have been a proud member of what one might call President Reuven Rivlin’s “unity coalition.” If that doesn’t surprise you, it certainly surprised me. Before he took office, I doubted whether former Likud MK Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin would include a leader of the Reform movement in North America in his orbit of responsibility and relationship.
It didn’t begin that way. We first met on a scorching hot day in July 2014, before traveling to Modi’in to join tens of thousands of other mourners gathered in grief to lay to rest our three murdered Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, of blessed memory. I had written an open letter to Rivlin in Haaretz, pleading with him to update his previous harsh public statements about Reform Judaism, but received no response.
Natan Sharansky intervened and set up a meeting with Rivlin at the Jewish Agency just days before he would become Israel’s 10th president. My goal was simple: to see if the president-elect could find it in his heart to embrace the 1.9 million Jews of the Reform movement as part of his wider constituency as Israel’s president.
In memory of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, I pleaded with the president-elect, “We must find a way to feel more connected and responsible for one another, no matter our beliefs or practices.”
Our meeting was warm and promising, but the real change came a week later, when I was back in New York. A profound shift had occurred as Rivlin called and addressed me in Hebrew as “Harav,” rabbi, the same title he used for respected Orthodox rabbis. He pledged as Israel’s new president to work closely with our movement in addressing the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people. Over the past seven years, he has fulfilled that pledge. The respect he initially showed me personally has been extended to Jews across the denominational spectrum of Judaism.
Since taking office, Rivlin’s leadership has been transformational. He has been a champion of unity among the Jewish people and a staunch defender of the rights of all citizens – especially the Arab citizens of Israel. Rivlin was the first Israeli president to attend the annual memorial ceremony at Kafr Qasem, the site of a massacre in 1956, when Israeli Border Police shot dead 49 Arab citizens of Israel. At the event, he expressed the profound values of Judaism and the Jewish state by offering heartfelt words of condolence and apology.
And he has worked to strengthen the deep relationship between Israel and the United States. In his 2015 White House meeting with President Barack Obama and this week’s meeting with President Joe Biden, all the world could see how comfortable Rivlin was discussing important issues of mutual concern with these leaders of Israel’s most important ally. He showed the same comfort when meeting with President Donald Trump in Israel. His unity coalition has included Republicans and Democrats, Orthodox and Reform Jews, Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.
Perhaps his most historic speech took place at the Herzliya Conference in 2015, when Rivlin described what he termed the four tribes of modern Israel: secular Jews, religious Zionist Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs. In antiquity, it took enormous spiritual and political strength to hold the Twelve Tribes together. It has taken enormous strength for Rivlin to do the same with today’s fractious tribes.
As the bonds holding world Jewry and Israel were unraveling in the wake of the cancellation of the so-called Kotel agreement, the plan for creating a new space for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall, and the threat of a divisive conversion bill, Rivlin uttered words at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America that we had not heard previously: “The State of Israel was, and will always be, the home of every Jew; Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, secular, traditional, Ashkenazi, Sephardi. … The Jews of the Diaspora, especially in North America, are full partners.” In effect, he called us Israel’s “fifth tribe.”
As we approach the Tisha B’Av fast day, which begins this year at sunset July 17 and ends 25 hours later, we recall the years before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. The period was riven by deep and destructive sectarian divisions. In particular, the Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat hinam – gratuitous hatred between Jews. We see that kind of factional hatred in today’s Israel. As recently as Tuesday, Haredi legislators in the Knesset spewed vitriol against my colleague, Labor Party MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi who previously served as the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Sadly, despite Rivlin’s leadership and the personal example he sets of derekh eretz – common decency and courtesy – sinat hinam is still a reality.
If we are to avoid the perils of sinat hinam, we must commit to being part of a unity coalition of the Jewish people. We need to model respectful debates and learn about the theology, diversity and traditions of each other’s communities. The same principles apply to those of us who are political liberals, when it comes to how we talk about and engage political conservatives in our synagogues and communities – and vice versa. I don’t long for some superficial “we are one” mantra that deliberately aims to overlook the substantive differences among our Jewish communities, but rather a more challenging exercise in communal leadership that honors and draws strength from our differences.
As the scourge of intolerance threatens to engulf so much of our Jewish and wider world, we desperately need leaders of conscience and conviction. I remain hopeful and confident based on his own long embrace of klal Israel – Jewish unity, or the community of Israel – that Rivlin’s mantle as a unifier will now be worn proudly by Israel’s next president, Isaac Herzog, but the responsibility of holding the tribes together is on all of our shoulders. We are blessed to have had such a leader in President Reuven Rivlin. As we celebrate his leadership over these past seven years, let’s commit to be permanent members of his unity coalition.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.