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Chief Labels?

Our Aliyah Chronicle

By Shmuel Katz

As most of you know, new chief rabbis were elected here last week. After months of headlines and controversy, the election itself signaled a “no desire for change” attitude, with Rabbi Dovid Lau (Ashkenazi) and Rabbi Yizhak Yosef (Sephardi), both sons of former chief rabbis, elected to 10-year terms.

Before I continue, a bit of a disclaimer: Rabbi Dovid Lau is/was the Chief Rabbi of Modiin prior to his election as Chief Rabbi of Israel. My yeshiva, Migdal HaTorah, is located in Modiin, and Rabbi Lau will be a maggid shiur for the yeshiva (he told us several weeks ago that were he to be elected, he still intends to honor that commitment).

I should also say that (I guess, thankfully) the Israeli rabbinate has had very little direct influence on our lives here. Other than kashrut/hashgachah (which is often characterized as quite a mess here), there is no other area of influence where we would be affected, and I do not foresee any issues regarding our family having a problem with a marriage certificate or other issue having to do with the rabbinate.

Both of our older daughters appeared before a panel of rabbis to claim an exemption from army service as religious girls and were certified as such by the panel. They both elected to serve in sherut leumi (national service) as part of their (perceived) obligation to serve the country, as do many other religious Zionist girls. This may have been our only direct interaction with the rabbinate in the seven-plus years that we have been here.

I do not try to keep up with politics here; it would take too much of my time to do so. I find the political process extremely confusing and it seems to me that the motives of everyone in the political arena are extremely suspect. The politics here are acrimonious and extremely partisan, and I simply find it disturbing when I try to follow them too closely.

So I will be the first to admit that any analysis or opinion I have formed is mostly based upon my personal impressions from the little I glean from the news and hearing people talk about it. I do know that many people here in Israel were acting as if the fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance.

I also know that the election is a setback for Habayit Hayehudi, because their campaign platform included a stated goal of having a Religious Zionist chief rabbi elected. The failure to elect a “progressive” candidate has also seemingly signaled a victory for Shas (since their stated goals were the election of chareidi candidates).

Based upon the reactions of many of my friends and neighbors, you would think the world had come to an end. Which does not surprise me as much as it perplexes me. The lack of surprise is simple; as I have mentioned in the past, olim as a group tend to be quite passionate in the beliefs and focused upon their politics and agenda. So it makes sense that many of my friends and neighbors were closely following the elections and emotionally invested in the outcome.

Yet, for all that I have learned about him through the yeshiva and in speaking with residents of Modiin, Rabbi Lau seems to have been a very well-liked and effective rabbi there. Which says something in itself, as Modiin is not in any way, shape, or form, a chareidi city.

Modiin is one of a few planned cities in Israel and it was intended to be a totally secular city. The beauty of the city (it truly is picturesque) drew in religious people as well. This led to a mini-crisis a few years back, because religious families have a higher birthrate than do secular families and there were not enough school and preschool facilities included in the original plan, nor were there facilities for enough shuls.

The city is still predominantly secular, although there is definitely a religious presence in the city—even a religious city council member. Rabbi Lau is extremely highly regarded throughout the city as a genuinely good person, one who has worked for the betterment of the city. He has established Modiin’s Rabbanut hashgachah (hashgachah being one of the main roles of the chief rabbi of Israel as well) as extremely trustworthy, and I have not heard anyone say a disparaging word about him. (The people we have dealt with in Modiin have been from the Religious Zionist “camp”—and they all love him.)

It seems to me that we once again have gotten too invested in labeling people and ideas. Rabbi Lau is chareidi and thus “bad.” We “lost” because the candidate closest to our ideals was not elected. Things are rarely that black-and-white.

I have said before that there are many terrific things I admire about the chareidi world. I assume that most of the chareidi public are really nice people. And, from my (limited) impressions of him, Rabbi Lau fits that mold. Furthermore, in my opinion, he has shown himself to be someone who can work and has worked together with people of other demographics in a mutually respectful and positive manner.

Who knows? Perhaps he might be a force for change more effective than others may have been. There is really only one way to find out, and I look forward to seeing what he does in office. v

Addendum: A few days ago, news about a possibly racist comment made by Rabbi Lau was breaking in Israel. While it is unfortunate (if correctly reported) that Rabbi Lau used derogatory language to speak about anyone, he, like anyone, is bound to make mistakes as he grows into his new position. I am sure that he regrets his statement. I continue to hope that his election leads to positive developments for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (, a gap-year yeshiva opening in 2013. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at

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Posted by on August 4, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.