Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

From Shunning to Mediation

By Barbara Sofer
Nov. 12, 2003

Malicious graffiti defacing synagogues has terrible associations for Jews. I was disgusted to hear that the Ohel Nehama Synagogue, which is located near the Jerusalem Theater, was spray painted by vandals. Even before the graffiti, I'd heard a well-known public figure speaking in Jerusalem referring to the synagogue as proof that Israel had lost its soul.

How did this synagogue become the lighting rod for such criticism? The controversy began with an article published last summer by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg in Yediot Aharonot. Burg's article, "Zionism is Dead" contended that Israel's immoral behavior would reduce our country to "a strange and ugly Jewish State." Suicide bombings, he wrote, were a reaction to Israeli callousness toward Palestinian children.

These aren't ordinary times, but even in ordinary times the article would have provoked a storm - both by those who disagree with Burg, and by those who don't believe that radical self-criticism is the way to go when we're in a struggle for survival. Still, the article was in Hebrew, and we Israelis are used to caustic dialogue in newspapers, on TV, in the Knesset and even at dinner tables.

But then the diatribe was removed from the Israeli context and translated verbatim for the French newspaper Le Monde. Israel-bashers predictably reveled over the admission of moral culpability by the former speaker of the Knesset.

In the Ohel Nehama congregation, there are many French-speaking members with friends and relatives in France. They were disappointed and angry, particularly when it came out that the translator was Lucien Lazare - a member of the congregation and Burg's father-in-law. Congregants of Ohel Nehama hold multi-hued ideologies, even more so than many other synagogues. They take turns giving lectures that reflect the plethora of their backgrounds and interests. Including Lazare. A number of his friends felt Lazare had crossed a red line. He was entitled to his own opinions, but willingly translating an article that would harm Israel's image, in a country where their own relatives were afraid to walk on the street with a kippa, was aiding and abetting the enemy.

About 20 friends, mostly Ohel Nehama members, sent Lazare a letter formally terminating their friendship.

THE SYNAGOGUE'S leadership and its rabbi, Daniel Tropper, was unequivocal: The letter was private and didn't represent the synagogue. Lazare was welcome.

Nonetheless, Lazare decided to take his praying elsewhere. Rabbi Tropper invited those involved in the conflict to his home to initiate a mediation process. The idea in mediation is that neither side tries to score a victory over the other. Instead, they work to overcome their negative feelings. Bygones, as they say, are bygones. The mediation was partially successful, according to Rabbi Tropper. "Reconciliation is a process. It always takes time." On parshat Breishit, Lazare returned to the synagogue. Several of his former friends turned their backs on him, but others were polite. He was called to the Torah.

As he chanted the blessing, orchestrated coughing could be heard from the women's gallery. According to Lazare's wife Janine, her husband is hard of hearing and didn't notice. Nonetheless, it wasn't a good sign. A week later, a long interview with Lazare in Haaretz highlighted his anguish at "being shunned" and supposedly ostracized. The entire congregation of religious Jews was painted with the brush of intolerance. Another bad move.

Then graffiti marred the facade of Ohel Nehama declaring - "Lazare is correct." Avraham Burg and Lucien Lazare have the right to publish their censure of Israel at home and abroad. There is, of course, a difference between having the right and showing good sense. Burg averred that he was moved by moral indignation to shout out his protest. And he did. It's difficult to understand why he and his father-in-law felt they had to enlist the populace of France in the protest.

Unpopular moral stands often come with a price. In a Jerusalem which has suffered so at the hands of terrorists, and within a French-speaking community including bereaved parents, Lazare must have anticipated angry disapproval.

He may have overestimated the forbearance of his friends. To lose so many at once must be excruciating. But it would seem a fair price if one believes strongly in the rightness of a cause. You can't always have it both ways.

And what of the role of the synagogue which has received so much negative publicity? No doors were slammed despite the grief and wrath caused by Lazare's translation. The renegade coughers were reprimanded. The Lazares - I can testify - have become reluctant to complain about their fellow congregants to journalists. Rabbi Tropper's attempts at reconciliation - though not wholly successful - offered a middle path to keep the congregation together despite such hurtful behavior.

Doesn't sound like a bastion of intolerance to me - quite the opposite. Here's hoping that future efforts at reconciliation both here in Jerusalem and nationally are triumphant. We are in great need of such attempts - and Ohel Nehama could set a positive example for us all.

Nehama comes from the word for "consoling." Healing our own internal injuries wound be consolation indeed.



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