Last March I spoke out publicly to express my distress when a scheduling difficulty made it impossible for Uri Lupolianski, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who was then the acting mayor of Jerusalem, to meet with a delegation from the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion’s Board of Governors. We had come to Israel to express solidarity with and support of the Jewish state during a time of great distress. I wrote with great sadness in the pages of the Forward about what I regarded as a serious act of omission on the part of the acting mayor to receive a Reform mission.
That sadness was erased on August 3. Last Sunday at noon the now duly elected mayor Lupolianski received a large delegation from HUC in the Jerusalem City Hall Council Chamber. The delegation of more than 100 people was headed by the chair of our Board of Governors, Burton Lehman, and included past chair Richard Scheuer as well as the chair of the HUC Jerusalem Board of Overseers, Yoram Dinstein, a former president of Tel Aviv University. HUC students and their families accompanied these leaders, and Lupolianski greeted them warmly and respectfully. The reception the mayor accorded our delegation must be regarded as a praiseworthy and positive act in a Jewish world that is all too often needlessly divided.
The HUC has been in Jerusalem for 40 years, proudly contributing to the vitality and pluralism that marks this capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. There are currently almost 40 Israeli students studying in our Israeli rabbinical program, and a number of them were in City Hall on Sunday. These Israeli students were joined by 70 first-year students — the largest such group of HUC students in more than a decade — who are now in Israel for a year of study that will one day qualify them to serve as cantors, educators and rabbis for millions of Jews throughout the Diaspora.
For more than 30 years every single rabbi ordained by the Reform movement in the United States has been required by HUC to study for at least one year in Jerusalem. Their presence in Israel at this moment reflects the ongoing policy of our Board of Governors that asserts that our leaders should feel a sense of kinship to the State of Israel as well as Jews worldwide. Through their study in Israel, our students learn that the relationship that binds all Jews together as one diverse people must be affirmed.
Past mayors of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert shared this affirmation, recognizing that while Orthodox and Reform trends in Judaism parted on many issues, there are still enough shared values to allow for “love of the whole.” As mayors of the city, they routinely welcomed our students who journeyed to Israel for this year of study. Lupolianski now continues this tradition.
The mayor entered the room in a buoyant manner and easily shook the hands of every single person who approached him. He spoke to me in English and said, “Welcome, Rabbi Ellenson,” and immediately turned to his audience and addressed them in Hebrew. He spoke of the importance of Jerusalem for the Jewish people and indicated how much he hoped that Jerusalem would be a city of peace for all Jews. Lupolianski told the students how much he valued their coming to Jerusalem this year, and he invited them to be his guests again at some later point in City Hall.
His sense of humor was quite disarming, and after he finished speaking he listened respectfully as I addressed him regarding the commitment of HUC to the city of Jerusalem and the Jewish people. I concluded by inviting him to be our guest at our Jerusalem campus at some future point, and I thanked him for what I am confident will be only the first of many such encounters. At the end, Lupolianski stayed for another 20 minutes and chatted informally with our delegation. He even invited several students to be guests in his home at some time in the future.
As the solemn fast of Tisha B’av was observed this week, we remember that our Temple was destroyed and our people dispersed because of the sin of senseless hatred. The greeting that the mayor of Jerusalem extended to our Reform delegation at this time indicates that Jews need not fall prey to this sin again. We must all emphasize that what unites us as Jews is far more important than what separates us. May we all warrant many more years of such mutual respect for the sake of Israel and our people.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion.