Jewish Agency chairman-to-be meets Reform movement, sparking ultra-Orthodox furor

The presumptive chairman-to-be of the Jewish Agency spent his first Shabbat after being nominated to the position at the Israeli Reform movement’s biennial conference outside Tel Aviv, sparking fierce criticism from ultra-Orthodox groups and leaders.

Doron Almog, who was tapped on Thursday to take over helm of the Jewish Agency, spoke glowingly of Reform Judaism during the event, noting his family’s connection to the movement: his daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue.

Almog’s decision to publicly appear at the Reform biennial conference appeared to indicate an intention to improve ties between the Jewish Agency and progressive streams of Judaism, which were strained somewhat during the nearly year-long tenure of the acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel.

On Saturday night, Almog addressed the more than 1,000 Reform rabbis and lay leaders from Israel and the United States who attended the conference at Kibbutz Shefayim, north of Tel Aviv, reflecting on his experiences with the Reform movement and offering a glimpse into his guiding philosophy for his new role.

“Our daughter, Dr. Nitzan Almog, who is now 43 years old, said she wanted to have an aliyah to the Torah,” Almog said, eliciting applause and whoops of support from the audience. He was referring to the practice of people being called up to say a blessing over the Torah when they reach the age of being a bar or bat mitzvah — generally 13 for boys and 12 for girls.

“Neither of us knew anything about the community or about Reform synagogues. But [Nitzan] found one. We lived then in Rishon Lezion. She had an aliyah and we were with her. and there was great joy. The photo of our daughter Nitzan wearing a prayer shawl is still hanging in our house,” Almog said.

During his appearance at the conference, Almog was gifted a copy of the Reform movement’s prayer book, “Tefilat Ha’adam,” meaning “the prayer of man.”

“‘The prayer of man’ is a vow that a man makes to himself in the deepest places. I have made two such vows in my life. One next to the tank of my brother Eran — may his memory be a blessing — during the Yom Kippur War: never to leave a man behind. The other, which I demanded of hundreds of paratroopers next to the grave of Hannah Szenes — for the weakest among us: always stay human beings,” Almog said. Almog’s brother, a tank commander, was killed in the 1973 war.

Almog’s remarks and his appearance at the conference sparked immediate condemnation from ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, groups and politicians.

Haredi Knesset member Yitzhak Pindrus called Almog’s appearance at the Reform movement’s event “disgraceful and disappointing.”

UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus attends the Knesset House Committee’s hearing on declaring now-former Yamina MK Amichai Shikli a defector from his party, April 25, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Pindrus, who does not personally identify as a Zionist and whose United Torah Judaism party is officially non-Zionist, added that Reform Judaism is “hiding an anti-Zionist agenda.”

“I call on Almog to rescind his remarks and his attempt to curry favor with those who work against him and against the right of the Jewish people to exist in our land,” Pindrus said in a statement.

Pindrus has a long history of controversial remarks, including calling for the Supreme Court to be blown up and referring to women who convert to Judaism through a rabbinate-approved conversion program in the military as shiksas, a derogatory term for non-Jewish women.

The Liba Center, a Haredi organization that among other things fiercely and often violently opposes female-led prayer services at the Western Wall, accused Almog of planning to “impose on the entire [Jewish] people an anti-traditional contortion.”

The Liba Center was at the heart of tensions between progressive Jewry and Jewish Agency acting chairman Hagoel, who also serves as the head of the World Zionist Organization. In his capacity as chairman of the WZO, Hagoel signed off on a joint event with the Liba Center, in which the Haredi organization’s activists attacked members of the Women of the Wall who were leading an all-female prayer service at the Western Wall.

Hagoel’s partnership with the extremist group prompted widespread condemnation by Jewish organizations around the world, including the Jewish Agency itself. The WZO later apologized for working with the Liba Center and pledged to avoid such partnerships in the future.

In a statement, the former head of the Conservative, or Masorti, movement in Israel and the current vice chairman of the WZO, Yizhar Hess — a political rival of Hagoel’s — lambasted the Haredi groups for their “immediate denunciations” of Almog, saying their comments “showed ignorance, stupidity or — unfortunately — wickedness.”

“The Jewish Agency is the executive arm of the Zionist movement and it represents the entire Jewish people, millions of whom subscribe to Reform and Conservative Judaism,” he said.

Almog was nominated to take the reins of the Jewish Agency for Israel last week, following a nearly year-long search for a replacement for Isaac Herzog, who left the organization to become president of Israel.

Almog, 71, a past head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command and winner of the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, largely due to the rehabilitation village for people with physical and mental disabilities that he established after retiring from the military, was widely seen as a consensus candidate.

Numerous attempts to find a replacement for Herzog failed over the past year as no candidate was able to get the nine out of 10 votes necessary to secure the nomination from the selection committee. Almog was chosen unanimously by the nominating committee.

Almog’s selection will be submitted to the Jewish Agency’s board of governors for approval at its upcoming meeting next month, which will largely be a formality. He is expected to officially enter the position in September.

“I am proud and excited about the trust and election,” Almog said in a statement after his nomination. “By working together, we will ignite flame and pride in our work for a future of hope for future generations.”

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