By Yehudis Litvak.
Rabbi David Baruch Lau, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, paid a six-day visit to the southern California Jewish community so that he could familiarize himself with California Jewry and help to build bridges between different segments of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Lau is the former Chief Rabbi of Modi’in. He was elected for a ten-year term as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel in 2013. Rabbi Lau is a 37th- generation rabbi, descending from a long line of rabbis, including his distinguished father, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, currently Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
Rabbi Lau and his wife Tzipporah followed an ambitious itinerary as they visited Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues throughout southern California and across the spectrum of Jewish affiliation and observance. This interest in the entire community is unprecedented, and many consider this visit a historic event. Throughout his visit, Rabbi Lau emphasized Jewish unity and found a willing audience in each segment of the local Jewish community.
The first stop was The New Jewish Community High School, a pluralistic high school catering to Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform families. “The Chief Rabbi’s visit was an act of tremendous political courage and a statement of achdut,” said Head of School, Dr. Bruce Powell, “And the students’ reaction was exactly that. We are all one people, and the things that divide us are not nearly as big as the things that bring us together.” Rabbi Lau addressed the students, focusing on brotherhood and encouraging the students to learn from the ideal brotherly relationship in the Torah, that of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon. The students asked questions. “Rabbi Lau answered [the tough questions] with tremendous kavod,” said Dr. Powell. “He answered not from politics, but from the heart.” Then the school put up a mechitzah and Rabbi Lau davened mincha together with the students and faculty. “It was a historic moment that will affect the students for decades to come. It’s just short of zman mashiach,” summarized Dr. Powell.
That evening, Rabbi Lau participated in a discussion with Rabbi Moshe Bryski, Director of Chabad of the Conejo, and David Suissa, President of the Tribe Media Corporation and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The event was held at the Westlake Hyatt Hotel in Conejo Valley and was attended by a crowd of 500, mostly non-Orthodox. The questions ranged from simple, such as what is included in the Chief Rabbi’s job description, to controversial, such as the differences between Israel and America regarding separation of church and state. Rabbi Lau responded that unlike the United States, Israel is first and foremost a Jewish state, was established as a Jewish state, and needs to preserve the Jewish flavor. He defined his job as teaching Torah and inspiring Jews of all backgrounds. He shared his vision of bringing everyone together despite our differences. “We are one family. We need each other,” was Rabbi Lau’s message. The audience responded very positively. “I was shocked and amazed that the Chief Rabbi found the time to come to Conejo Valley,” added Laurence Michelson, one of the attendees. “This truly shows his love for the Jewish people and speaks volumes for his desire to reach out to Jews. I was taken aback by his humility. He is very down-to-earth.” Another attendee, Yitzchak Barnett explained, “I felt the presence of holiness and was inspired.” “Everyone walked away with a sense of humility, acceptance, and closeness,” agreed Rabbi Bryski.
The next day, Rabbi Lau met with a diverse group of community leaders, including non-Orthodox rabbis and leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “We discussed issues of mutual agreement as well as issues of concern,” explained Mr. Jay Sanderson, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation. “It was a wonderful opportunity to sit down with such an esteemed leader. We are happy he believes in dialog and listens to our concerns. Rabbi Lau has open arms for all Jews.” Nevertheless, in the course of the vigorous conversation it became clear that Rabbi Lau’s strong stand on halachic Judaism is irreconcilable with the sentiments in favor of Israeli government funding for non-Orthodox synagogues that was discussed at the meeting.
Rabbi Lau also visited a number of our Jewish schools. At Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy he was greeted by the student body who lined the hallway, and then spoke to the students in 4th through 8th grade. Rabbi Lau held a question and answer session with the 8th graders, where he described his job responsibilities. He emphasized Torah learning as the foundation of all community work and encouraged a connection with Eretz Yisrael. “It was an unbelievable experience for our students,” says Rabbi Eli Broner, Director of Campus Life, “to see greatness, to meet and interact with such a figure on a personal level.” Rabbi Lau then gave a shiur to the Judaic studies teachers, where he described teaching Torah as emulating Hashem’s work.
At Maimonides Academy, he participated in the dedication of a recently completed building and he was honored to affix a mezuzah. The ceremony was attended by all the students as well as 200 adults, including community rabbis, representatives of other schools, and leaders of the BJE. This event was held right after the tragic events in France, and Rabbi Lau spoke about the appropriate Jewish response to the tragedy which is to build stronger Jewish communities and schools.
At Yavneh Hebrew Academy, Rabbi Lau spoke to boys and girls in grades 6th through 8th about Jewish unity. “[Rabbi Lau] has a great sense of how to talk to people,” said Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, Dean. Next, Rabbi Lau visited Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu and gave a shiur at Yeshiva Ohr Elchanan Chabad, where he encouraged the students to keep growing and to use their Torah studies as a basis for their future endeavors.
On Shabbos, Rabbi Lau’s drasha at the Beth Jacob Congregation at Beverly Hills drew 700 people, and 180 of them stayed for the luncheon. “It was a special weekend that strengthened our feeling of connectedness to Israel and inspired us about our Jewish future, “explained Rabbi Kalman Topp, Senior Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation. “People were impressed with Rabbi Lau’s warmth, caring, his gentle and soft-spoken manner. He was able to connect in a deep way with many different constituencies.” On Motzei Shabbos, Beth Jacob was filled again as Rabbi Lau participated in a conversation with Rabbi Topp and took questions from the audience. Israeli Consul General David Siegel attended the event and addressed the audience, praising Rabbi Lau as a true leader who makes Judaism accessible to everyone. Rabbi Lau responded to questions and addressed the relationship between the Rabbinate and the Israeli government, stating that since Israel is a democracy it needs a religious adviser to provide a Jewish opinion just as it needs legal advisers to provide legal opinions. Rabbi Lau said that the Prime Minister and other members of the Knesset agreed with him, but others disagreed, and he asked the audience to pray that the upcoming election results in a government which is supportive of Judaism. Rabbi Lau also described his meeting with the Minister of Agriculture where he suggested planning for the next shmitta year, seven years in advance, in order to make it easier for the farmers to keep shmitta.
On Sunday morning, Rabbi Lau davened at Congregation Etz Chaim of Hancock Park and shared words of encouragement with the congregants, emphasizing the holiness of the Jewish home and its role in transmitting our tradition. “Rabbi Lau enhanced and beautified our shul by his visit,” said Rabbi Chaim Baruch Rubin of Etz Chaim.
On Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Lau visited the Chabad Jewish Center at USC and met with 60 Jewish student leaders from several universities in the area, making history as the first Israeli Chief Rabbi to visit an American university. He advised the students to seek a community where both the older and the younger generation come together. Grounded in tradition, such a community has both past and future. He encouraged the students to be proud of their grandparents and to become the kind of people their grandchildren would be proud of. When asked about the most important task of a Jewish leader on campus, Rabbi Lau urged students to represent Israel and explain that Israel wants peace, prays for peace and dreams of peace, but needs the help of other nations to make it a reality. Rabbi Lau also addressed Israel’s greatest challenge, which he described as “teenage identity crisis.” Since Israel is still a young country it hasn’t yet solidified its national identity, which leads to arguments and occasional raised voices among its citizens. “We forget that we are brothers and sisters,” said Rabbi Lau. “I want to educate people in Israel to remember that we have more in common than what separates us.” The response of the student leaders was very positive. “It was an amazing event. [The Chief Rabbi] talked to us about tackling the challenges of the 21st century,” added Yoni Goldenberg from CSUN.
Rabbi Lau also met with the Israeli American Council of Greater Los Angeles and with a group of local Chabad shluchim. On Monday, Rabbi Lau visited Orange County and met with the leaders of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and participated in a public conversation with Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, head of North County Chabad Center in Orange County in an event attended by 300 people. An emotional meeting took place when Holocaust survivors were invited to light yahrzeit candles for the four victims of the terror attack in France, and it was revealed that one of the survivors, Dr. Jacob Eisenbach, had been in Buchenwald together with Rabbi Lau’s father. The Chief Rabbi also took the time to visit Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz, Director of Chabad Jewish Center in Temecula, CA, whose movement and communication are severely limited due to the ALS disease.
While the common theme throughout Rabbi Lau’s visit was Jewish unity he did not shy away from controversial questions. Rabbi Lau was ready to admit that the Israeli Rabbinate could use improvement. He described his vision of raising the level of professionalism in rabbinates throughout the country and educating every clerk in the halachos of Kiddush Hashem which apply to their interactions with clients. Rabbi Lau also mentioned a new test he instituted as part of the semicha examination which requires the new rabbis to be thoroughly familiar with the halachos of derech eretz and proper interpersonal conduct. He believes that a rabbi should teach by example, through his personal qualities, his prayer, and behavior towards others.
Asked about conversion, Rabbi Lau said that the issue was blown out of proportion by the media. The majority, over 70%, of those who desire a conversion are actually Jewish by birth but are missing the documents to prove it. Rabbi Lau described his plan to go through the archives of Yad Vashem, as well as those of some European cities, and find proof of these people’s Jewishness. The Israeli government had agreed to his plan and began the necessary work, but later postponed it due to upcoming elections. The question of the other 30% is a matter of halacha to be decided in a Beit Midrash, said Rabbi Lau, and not on the pages of newspapers. The issue of Reform and Conservative movements in Israel is also blown out of proportion by the media, according to Rabbi Lau. Out of over 500 shuls in Tel Aviv, only one is Reform, and the same pattern is seen throughout the country.
At several events, Rabbi Lau was asked about chareidim serving in the IDF. His reply was both personal and passionate. Rabbi Lau is a Major in the IDF intelligence Cops, but he did not join the army at age nineteen. It was only after he left yeshiva that he joined the IDF, and stayed longer than mandatory, earning the rank of Major. Rabbi Lau’s answer is that as soon as a student leaves yeshiva he should join the army. While the learning is going well, however, Rabbi Lau believes that the student should continue learning, for the benefit of the whole Jewish nation which is in need of scholars and sages. Just as a talented musician or basketball player is not drafted into the army in Israel because the government recognizes that he can contribute to the country in other ways, so too the yeshiva students make a meaningful contribution to the Jewish people by continuing the tradition of Torah learning.
Rabbi Lau also addressed the role of the Jewish diaspora. He expressed his appreciation for the diaspora Jewry’s support of the State of Israel, and named Jewish education as the most important task in the diaspora that would ensure continuity of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, who was instrumental in bringing Rabbi Lau to California, believes that the goals of the visit were met with resounding success. “Rabbi Lau was able to build bridges across sectors of the Jewish community in a remarkable way,” he said. “He found a way to connect with everyone.”