Reform Rabbi Denied Jerusalem Honor

By Orly Halpern

Published March 29, 2007, issue of March 30, 2007.
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Jerusalem — He had recommendations from Israel’s ambassador to Washington, a former minister of justice, and an ultra-Orthodox leader — but in the end it didn’t help him.

For the second time in two years, octogenarian Rabbi Asher “Dick” Hirsch did not receive the honorary title of Ot Yakir Jerusalem, given to residents who have made an outstanding contribution to the city. The reason, those who supported him say, was because he is a leader of the Reform movement and the municipality is ruled by conservative-minded Orthodox Jews.

One of his major accomplishments was bringing the headquarters of the World Union for Progressive Judaism to Jerusalem. He also initiated the establishment of Merkaz Shimshon, a major cultural center in the city, and helped build a bridge between the city’s residents and the Jews of the Diaspora.

“They said there are more important people, more appropriate people. Some said they don’t know why his contribution is special,” said Pepe Alalu, leader of the Meretz faction of the Jerusalem city council. “Of course they wouldn’t say it’s because he’s Reform. But there was a clear feeling that the Haredi sector can’t accept a Reform candidate,” said Alalu, who participated in Sunday’s decision-making session.

The municipality denies this claim. “The recipients are selected based solely on their contribution to Jerusalem regardless of any political or religious considerations,” wrote municipality spokesman Gideon Schmerling in an e-mail to the Forward; however, with a coalition of Sephardic and Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox, the religious Zionists of the National Religious Party and the Likud holding 22 out of 33 seats in the municipality’s elected council, not much doubt remains over who holds the reins.

“No ultra-Orthodox representative in the Jerusalem municipality would say on the record he didn’t vote for Hirsch because he’s Reform. It’s not a wise thing to say,” said Nir Barekat, leader of the opposition Yerushalayim Yatzliach party. “They don’t want to pick unnecessary fights. But if you view how they changed the system, you see it enables this to happen.”

A council selection committee had to choose 15 names by general agreement. The mayor chooses three more for a total of 18. Hirsch’s name was one of some 30 that was short-listed to get the award. The three members on the selection committee from the opposition parties were the only ones to support him. When his name came up, Dalia Mazor, leader of the Shinui list, began telling the group of mostly Orthodox and Haredi Jews what he has done for the city.

“At first they ridiculed him,” she said in an interview with the Forward the following day. “They said, ‘Who is this Hirsch? Where does he live? We’ve never heard of him.’“

“Clearly none of us know all of the candidates,” Alalu said. “But the question is, who recommended the person? Those who recommended Dick Hirsch are from the cream of society.”

“There were rabbis on the list. Do I know them? No, but I accept the recommendation,” Alalu continued.

To make his point to a journalist, Alalu read the name Rabbi Herb Heiman from the list of candidates. “It’s written he’s from the Bayit V’Gan neighborhood and someone named Menachem Blumenthal recommended him because of the help he gives to the needy in the community,” Alalu said.

Heiman was accepted.

“But there’s a difference between a recommendation by Menachem Blumenthal” and the many prominent people who recommended Hirsch, Alalu said.

The choosing of the honorees was conducted according to a controversial new method established by the mayor, after the previous selection method he instated a few years ago was rejected by the city’s comptroller for being too political. The new method allows anyone to recommend an honoree, after which a professional committee selects some 30 according to unrevealed criteria. A council selection committee made up of one person from each party and three more people chosen by the mayor selects the final 15. The mayor then adds three more to the list, and the 18 are presented before the whole council for approval.

All three leaders of the opposition slammed the new method because it forms a selection committee based on political parties. The result was that the opposition had three voices versus the eight held by the religious coalition.

“It’s even more political and less professional than the previous method,” Barekat complained. “It pushes out a candidate who does not suit the political agenda of the majority of the group.”

Both Barekat and Alalu suggested that a professional committee, headed by a judge, should be established to make the decision.

Avraham Kostalitz, a member of the selection committee, did not believe that religious politics were involved in the decision to reject Hirsch.

“He will probably get it next year,” insisted Kostalitz, an Orthodox Jew who was formerly a member of Barekat’s party and is now leading a splinter party.

Kostalitz himself abstained on Hirsch’s candidacy. “I didn’t want to give my opinion. I don’t have to give an opinion about him. I didn’t have any opposition to this person, personally speaking. I know he’s a Reform rabbi, and I hold different opinions.”

Mazur claims that the Haredi and Orthodox council members feared supporting a Reform Jew.

“They are scared from the Haredi violence,” Mazur said. “One [committee member] said to me, ‘Dalia, drop this issue; they’ll kill us if [Hirsch] gets it.’“

Rabbi Uri Regev, leader of the World Movement for Progressive Judaism, blamed the mayor for Hirsch’s rejection and criticized his leadership.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the current mayor’s disdain for Reform Judaism clouds his judgment in the way he runs the city,” Regev said. “I think it’s unfortunate that he is taking the city of Jerusalem — holy to all Jews of all stripes and religious beliefs and observances — and hijacks it in a way that alienates non-Orthodox Judaism, which constitutes the majority of world Jewry.”

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