For the past few years, the Lotem school in Rehovot has been offering a bar mitzvah training program for children with disabilities, led by the Masorti Movement. As part of the program, 10 autistic children have been preparing for the past six months for the most important ceremony in the life of a Jewish boy, which was set to take place in the city's Conservative synagogue.
About a month ago, however, Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul decided that the ceremony would be moved to an Orthodox synagogue. The Masorti Movement refused, and concerns were raised that the incident would lead to a crisis with the global Conservative movement, which includes some 2 million Jews, mostly in the United States. This prompted Dvir Kahana, the director-general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, to turn to the President's Residence, which agreed to host the ceremony.
But what appeared to be a compromise turned into another dispute. Masorti Movement officials say they reached an understanding on a ceremony in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin, which would be hosted by a Conservative rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi. However, they add, these understandings were later violated, and the Masorti Movement representatives turned into guests rather than active partners in the ceremony. Under these conditions, they decided to cancel the bar mitzvah celebration will be cancelled, and the children will likely be the ones who will pay the price for the religious rift.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in the US, said that the movement would not give up without a fight. "If Israel is the Jewish state, it's President's Residence should be the home of all Jews in the world," he stated. "It's unthinkable that the President's Residence would only allow an Orthodox prayer."
In a letter sent to Rivlin this month, Israeli and American leaders of the Conservative Judaism movement wrote that "the sole reason for this denial is the contempt of Israel's leaders for the sponsors of this program."
The letter added that denying the boys their bar mitzvah was "an act of cruelty."
The President's Residence, on the other hand, said that the Conservatives had rejected every single compromise proposal, adding that "unfortunately, religious elements are seeking to advance their goals while cynically using children."
Naomi Toledano-Kandel, Rivlin's spokeswoman, said it wasn't the role of the president's office to intervene in such a contentious political topic.
"We are not the place that will decide the religious war," she said.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform Jewish movement, said he was unfamiliar with the details of the bar mitzvah dispute but commended the conservatives for their initiative. He added that Rivlin has been respectful to all streams of Judaism since taking office.
The dispute highlights the long-simmering conflict between the Orthodox mainstream in Israel and the Reform and Conservative Judaism movements, which make up the majority of the American Jewish population but are marginal in Israel.
The Orthodox establishment rules many aspects of life inside Israel, such as marriage, divorce, conversions and burials. Liberal groups have struggled to make inroads inside the Jewish state and the Orthodox rabbinate has refused to recognize their rulings as religiously valid.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.