Members of fire-ravaged Central Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side expressed heartfelt appreciation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his brief visit to show support for the congregation devastated by an Aug. 28 blaze.
The visit last Sunday marked Netanyahu’s first official trip to a Reform synagogue since he took office two years ago. Reform movement leaders said it signified progress in their attempt to gain greater recognition in Israel.
Netanyahu, along with wife Sara, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a dozen security guards, took a brief tour of the badly damaged 126-year-old historic structure on East 55th Street. (The congregation is praying at the Seventh Regimental Armory on Park Avenue for the High Holy Days.)
Netanyahu gave Rabbi Peter Rubinstein a 24-karat gold bronze-cased mezuzah, to be posted when the multimillion-dollar renovation to the Moorish synagogue is completed in about 18 months.
Netanyahu promised to come back to the temple for its rededication. If he can’t make that date, he promised to pray with them at another time.
“He said if he can’t be here to rededicate it, he would like to come here and pray,” confirmed Rabbi Rubinstein. “It was great for him to be here and great for the entire Reform movement.”
Standing in the sweltering scaffold-filled structure, with the smell of smoke still lingering in the air, the rabbi told Netanyahu: “Your being here is such an extraordinary gift.”
The rabbi presented the prime minister with one of the original nails used to build the synagogue that came down during the fire.
“I remember this synagogue very well, it’s one of the greatest in the world,” said Netanyahu, who lived in New York during the 1980s when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “I’ve come here to offer you moral support,” he added, joking that with Israel’s tight national budget, that was all he could do.
“I think it says a lot for him as a person,” to visit, said Marilyn Alper, a member of the synagogue’s board of trustees.
“I hope this is a first step of opening a dialogue,” with the Reform movement, said board of trustee member Steve Bayer, referring to the ongoing two-year battle between Orthodox and non-Orthodox forces in Israel and America over which denominations should be able to perform conversions and other life-cycle events in Israel.
Netanyahu appointed a commission last year made up of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform representatives to resolve religious disputes. But the group, headed by Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman, has not been successful in its first two efforts, dealing with conversions and women praying at the Western Wall. Just last week, the Women of the Wall group rejected the Neeman compromise proposal that women pray at Robinson’s Arch, an extension of the Wall.
In a meeting with Jewish journalists earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu said it was unfortunate that that the conversion and women’s prayer issues were “back in the courts,” referring to non-Orthodox efforts to liberalize conversion policy and women’s groups’ attempts to hold prayer services at the Wall. He said if necessary his government will seek legislation supporting the Neeman Commission’s proposals.
Netanyahu’s Sunday visit to Central Synagogue was a marked contrast to a New York visit last year when the prime minister refused to appear in public with non-Orthodox leaders, while gladly posing with Orthodox rabbis for photos.
Synagogue member Ronald Lauder, president of the Jewish National Fund, and heir to the Estee Lauder perfume fortune, noted that Netanyahu had attended services many times during his UN years. Lauder played down the significance of his good friend’s first official visit to a Reform house of worship. “He came because it is a great synagogue,” Lauder said.
But Rabbi Ami Hirsch, executive director of ARZA, said the visit, which amounted to a side stop on a long day of lobbying by Netanyahu to major Jewish groups, signified “marked progress” in relations between the prime minister and the Reform movement.
“It was a very moving gesture and deeply appreciated,” said Rabbi Hirsch, who has been vocal in the past for criticizing Netanyahu over pluralism issues.
“We are eager for him to fulfill his gracious promise,” to pray with the Reform congregation when the building is ready.
That would mean, added Rabbi Hirsch, that Netanyahu would still be prime minister in two years.