(JTA) — If Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin gets elected next month to succeed President Shimon Peres as Israel’s next president, don’t blame Reform Jewry for withholding its applause. While Rivlin is thought of as an elder statesman and voice of reason within the Likud party, he hasn’t had the kindest words for America’s largest Jewish denomination.
In 1989, Rivlin accompanied Israeli Reform Rabbi Uri Regev, then CEO of the Israeli Religious Action Center, to a Shabbat service at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J. Regev told JTA that Rivlin “was most friendly” during the visit.
But speaking to the press, Rivlin lambasted the synagogue, and Reform Judaism, in an interview that appeared in Yediot Aharonot, a leading Israeli paper, and then subsequently in “Erev Shabbat,” an Israeli haredi paper, on April 19, 1989.
Here’s what Rivlin had to say about his Shabbat experience at Temple Emanu-El, along with a visit to another Reform synagogue:
As a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked without any limit. I discovered what kind of worshiping group was in front of me, such that any connection between it and Judaism didn’t even approach reality. I felt as if I were in a church.
I was completely stunned. This is idol worship and not Judaism. Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism. Total assimilation. Their prayer is like a completely Protestant ceremony.
In Haaretz today, former Union for Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie recalled the incident, as well as a 2007 meeting he had with Rivlin in which Rivlin would not commit to calling Yoffie “rabbi.”
Regev, now CEO of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious pluralism in Israel, says Rivlin still has work to do when it comes to respecting non-Orthodox Jews.
“In terms of religious pluralism, he has not demonstrated empathy or understanding of world Jewry,” Regev told JTA.