Thursday, January 5, 2012

Israeli President Shimon Peres Speaks at Conservative Conference in Israel

(Photo from

The Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism) celeberated 35 years of activity in Israel tonight at a gala evening in Shefayim, Israel. More than 600 people attended from Conservative Synagogues and communities all over Israel. Various Rabbis and lay people were honoured at this festive evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the conference. Immediately before he spoke, the choir "Shirat Machar" ("Song of Tomorrow") performed. Shirat Machar is a professionally coached choir made up of members of Noam (the Conservative youth movement in Israel). The choir is made up of young men and women from all over Israel. They perform a variety of music including Israeli popular music and some religious music. This type of performance has been attracting a great deal of publicity in the Israeli media lately, since there have been growing efforts by ultra-religious Jews in Israel to exclude women from singing in public.

Peres opened his comments, right after Shirat Machar finished, with a big smile and by noting that he had come to the conference expressly so that he could hear women singing. This was a direct shot at those ultra-religious fanatics who view this type of performance as a violation of Jewish law. Peres clearly set out a vision of gender equality that has no place for the exclusion of women or anyone else, in public, during army ceremonies or at any other time.

Peres went on to call for tolerance in a variety of other areas. He called on Israel to redouble its efforts to sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate a peace agreement. He emphasized the importance of minority religious rights, equality and democracy in Israel in every respect. He called on people of divergent religious views to find ways to live together, as they have for so many years, and to fight back against the militant minority that would create barriers between people of different views.

Peres has sometimes been called a dreamer, but the vision that he dreams is one of human dignity, peace, justice, tolerance and freedom. Commenting on the importance of Conservative Judaism and its roots, Peres described how Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the visionaries of Conservative Judaism, had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against discrimination just days before King Jr. was murdered. He brought that history forward in describing the contributions that Conservative Judaism continues to make in Israel by pushing for tolerance, respect for the law, justice and genuine devotion to the State of Israel.

President Peres had to leave shortly after his speech. But he paused to take some photographs with Shirat Machar and to speak to its members briefly. Just after his speech, the choir performed a second, longer set, much to the delight of the gala guests. Shirat Machar came back after various awards were presented and after dinner to perform a third set, this time including a chain of Shlomo Artzi songs which was enthusiastically received.

The combination of President Peres and Shirat Machar at the conference emphasized some of the key values of the Conservative Movement. Justice, tolerance, religious pluralism and dignity as reflected in Peres' vision, set out in his speech; and the exuberant, energetic sound of youth, male and female, working together to build a better future as represented by Shirat Machar.

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