Rabbi David Lau, Israel’s new Chief Rabbi (as of 2013) is incredibly enthusiastic, even at 10:30 p.m. Israel time. When I saw the Israel phone number flash across my phone I picked up expectantly, on the other side Rabbi Lau introduced himself. I was thrilled by the opportunity to learn more about the rabbi who claims to “belong to everyone,” and astonished to hear that he did not always want to be a rabbi. Some of the interview is paraphrased to improve the flow of the article.
Rabbi Lau is the son of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and Holocaust survivor, Yisrael Meir Lau. This interview is the first West Coast interview with Rabbi Lau, and Jlife is honored to be the Chief Rabbi’s inaugural interview in California. I spoke with Rabbi Lau from his home in Modi’in, approximately 15 minutes outside of Jerusalem. He was as eager to practice his English, as I was to get this exclusive scoop.
How is it to follow in your father’s footsteps? I’ll tell you something amazing. When I got married almost 30 years ago I said I am sure of two things: first, we’ll get married; second, I do not want to be a rabbi. I met 50 percent of the decision. The reason I did not want to become a rabbi is because I saw how difficult it is to be a rabbi. How difficult it is to be with people in happiness and sadness. There was so much to know, so much learning, so much to study. You really need to see and know people.
I knew the dynasty needed to be kept. I have a brother and [assumed] he would do it. But from time to time you need to see how you can help others. Sometimes life takes us in a different direction.
Life took Rabbi Lau in the direction of being a rabbi for the people. Before being elected Chief Rabbi of Israel he served as Chief Rabbi of Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut and Shoham. He has been married for 29 years and has seven children and three grandchildren.
Where does your drive to make the Chief Rabbinate more “friendly” and accessible come from? “I was born with it. But also, my grandfather was a very clever and warm man. I remember his funeral – everyone was there. There were people from the right and left [politically]. I saw how many people loved him; everyone with their reason. I saw a rabbi can be with everyone. You can be there. If you can [help others] – you must do it. If you can, you must be with people in happiness and sadness. Do what you can do, it does make a difference!”
You have made an attempt to reach out to all of Judaism, how has that impacted your office? The Chief Rabbinate is like a legal advisor in Israel – the Jewish advisor in Israel. We are like a mezuzah [symbolically the mezuzah is G-d’s watchful care over the home]. [The chief Rabbinate] keeps the vision of Jewish life in the Jewish country.
Yes, Israel is a democracy. Jewish tradition says you can do what you prefer, but you must know [what you are doing]. My job is to teach Jewish law to the Jewish government.
What is your hope for peace in Israel? Last week, I sat with the head of all religions in Israel, including Muslims and Christians. We have a committee that, once a year, we speak together around a table. If you sit around the same table you feel good. My hope [for Israel] is that everyone can sit together.
I spoke to them about education. We must speak about peace when we educate. We are leaders and we must say, “You cannot kill because of religion.” Everyone agreed. I told them, “Please educate everyone. Pay attention to the books used in schools, educate the children… Maybe the future can be better.”
How do you feel about visiting the United States? I am going to visit my brothers! Every Jew is my brother. I am going to meet people who want to think about a better world. If we can speak about it, maybe there is hope we can do it.
Rabbi David Lau is the youngest Chief Rabbi of Israel. In 2013, (at the age of 47) he was elected for a 10-year term as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi; he serves with Rabbi Yitzak Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi. The role alternates between the two rabbis and is recognized as the supreme halakhic and spiritual authority for the Jewish people in Israel. The post is controversial, as many believe the position to be archaic and outdated. However, Israel is a Jewish state founded as a Jewish homeland, and Judaism is central to the culture and identity of the country.
Rabbi Lau made it clear during the interview that it is his desire to bring Jews together. For instance, while he was expected to light the Chanukia at home, he was also scheduled to meet with Indian Jews from Cochin and celebrate Chanukah with them in Jerusalem the night following our interview. While in the United States Rabbi Lau is scheduled to visit Jewish communities in California and Chicago, including an interview by Rabbi Eliezrie on Monday, January 12 at 7:30 PM at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen / Chabad in Yorba Linda. Tickets for the interview are available online at OCJewish.com or by calling (714) 693-0770. Α
I dedicate this article to Rabbi Eliezrie and am grateful for his persistence and connections that made this article possible. — Lisa
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a therapist with Jewish Federation & Family Services in Orange County and an Adjunct Professor at Argosy University and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Dr. Grajewski has been with JLife Magazine since 2004.