Rabbi Aryeh Stern, a native of Tel Aviv who has served since 1982 on the staff of Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a leading religious Zionist institution, was elected the capital’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi last October. For political and bureaucratic reasons, the city’s two chief rabbi posts, chosen by religious and political figures, had not been filled for almost a dozen years. The rabbi, 70, who, unlike many charedi Israelis, has served in the Israeli Army in two wars, and his children and grandchildren have also done Army service. The Jewish Week interviewed him during a recent visit he made to New York for a Rabbinical Council of America conference. This is an edited transcript.
Q: Some Israelis in recent years have called for the end of the institution of the national chief rabbi. And Jerusalem has gone without its own chief rabbi for more than 10 years. What exactly does a city’s chief rabbi do?
A: During that time, almost 15 years, religious services were given, but they were given without responsibility — just clerks working. When people complained, there was no one listening. Spiritual leadership did not exist at all. Now there are people who actually answer to the public.
What has your first priority been as Jerusalem’s chief rabbi?
There are two first priorities. First, to give services that people want. Second, to find a connection between all communities of Jews in Jerusalem, and between Jews and non-Jews, to find common ground, to find a voice of Torah that will also be applicable to the secular Jews.
For many American Jews, the most prominent religious issue is the Women of the Wall, who are opposed, sometimes violently, when they attempt to hold their own prayer services at the Kotel. What is your solution to this issue?
The Kotel is not the responsibility of the Jerusalem Rabbinate; there is a [separate] rabbi of the holy places. That said, everyone who wants to come and pray at the Kotel, man or woman, is blessed. If people want to come and make provocations and bother other people, it is not blessed.
Would you give funding to non-Orthodox institutions — like Reform or Conservative synagogues — in Jerusalem?
We don’t have any grants; it comes from the Ministry of Culture. If we have [limited, non-financial] gifts, we give it to Reform and Conservative. But I will not print Reform siddurim [prayer books].
Some Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States and Israel complain that they feel treated as “second class” by Israel’s religious establishment — their conversions are often not recognized as valid. One of them, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, frequently runs into opposition from the country’s religious leadership. Is it possible for Modern Orthodox and charedi rabbis to cooperate?
Even in Israel, not every [rabbi] can do conversions. Even [some] chief rabbis of cities cannot do conversions. Only certain rabbis have that privilege or responsibility.
Regarding Rabbi Riskin … even if he is very lenient, he is still within the borders [of Jewish law]. I am happy to say I was part of the [national rabbinic] council that extended Rabbi Riskin’s term. I am glad that I had the possibility to prevent the negative thing that they [some charedi rabbis] tried to do to him..
You served in the Six-Day War in the army’s combat engineering corps. Does your record of army service help you dealing with some Israelis and hurt with others?
I served with chilonim [secular Jews] in the Army. Until today they are my friends. There were also charedim with me, especially in the Yom Kippur War. After the Yom Kippur War, I was mourning for my father. I needed to say Kaddish. Ten religious Jews weren’t around. But ten good [non-religious] Jews were around, playing backgammon. I would put a kipa, a cloth on their head, I would say a passage of Tehillim [Psalms] and say Kaddish for my father.