(JTA) — Having grown up in a devoutly Christian home, Irene Lopez would probably not be raising her daughter Jewish if not for David Lazar, the charismatic rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm.
Lopez and her Jewish husband, Samuel Sjoblom, are among the Swedes who were drawn to the Great Synagogue in recent years by the magnetic, if occasionally prickly, personality of Lazar, the energetic Israeli-American who has held the position since 2010.
“My decision to convert my daughter was very much inspired by David, who showed me with his outreach to gays and other minorities that being Jewish isn’t instead of anything else you are,” said Lopez, 33, a filmmaker and mother to Saskia Sjoblom Lopez, who recently turned 1.
Yet despite the pull that Lazar, 55, exerts on Jews and non-Jews in ultra-liberal Sweden — he was named heterosexual of the year in 2012 by a local gay magazine — the Jewish Community of Stockholm announced this week that it would replace Lazar following the failure of contract renewal talks.
Community officials said they offered Lazar a three-year extension but refused his demand for tenure, citing complaints about his “confrontational” style. Lazar told JTA he will leave in August because he needs “job security.”
What began as mundane negotiations between a colorful rabbi and his employers has escalated into a full-scale media row, with stories in Sweden’s major media and petitions on Lazar’s behalf signed by hundreds of Jews and non-Jews, some of whom believe Lazar’s departure is a result of his liberalism. Community leaders deny this, citing instead his behavior and “unwillingness to listen” — an issue they say is crucial to the consensus-driven model of Stockholm’s centralized Jewish community.
“A rabbi without enemies is not a rabbi,” Lazar told Sweden Radio in an interview Thursday in which he portrayed his falling-out with the community as a Euro-American culture clash.
In an earlier interview, Lazar was less cavalier.
“There are people for whom I don’t represent their ideal in a rabbi,” he said. “Some of them have told me, most of them have not. But I can see in people’s reactions and in their eyes.”
A portly man who sports a graying ponytail, Lazar is well versed in controversy. In 2001, shortly before he became rabbi of Tel Aviv’s Tiferet Shalom synagogue, he became the first Israeli clergyman to officiate at a gay wedding. It would be more than a decade before the Conservative movement, which ordained Lazar in 1983, would formally sanction gay unions.
Asked by a reporter whether he still qualified as a Conservative rabbi, Lazar grew testy and began listing his movement credentials before mockingly asking, “Now you tell me, am I?”
Lazar, a Los Angeles native, has limited interest in guidelines.
“Religion for the sake of religion is not interesting,” he once told an interviewer. “I don’t think God cares. God cares that we treat each other in the most loving way possible to create a better world.”
Such sentiments struck a chord in Sweden, one of the world’s most secular cultures and one in which some Jews feel it’s “important to show they’re not extremists or fanatics,” according to Stockholm’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Meir Horden, who also is an American-Israeli.
Swedish Jews had their first taste of Lazar in 2009 when he delivered a lecture at the annual Limmud Stockholm learning event. Alf Levy, a former community president, recommended hiring Lazar after hearing him speak.
But Levy has since stopped coming to the Great Synagogue because of Lazar’s “arrogance.”
“The weekly Jewish learning sessions, which used to be dialogue based, became a monologue under David,” he said. “When someone mentioned this, David got furious, sneered at him and ignored him.”
While Lazar does not lack for defenders — The David Lazar Unofficial Fanclub, a Facebook group, has 255 members — no one contests that his style is unorthodox. He has invited a gospel choir to perform at Friday night services and made liturgical changes, like replacing the line in the mourner’s prayer to mention “all of humanity” instead of only the “people of Israel.”
What Lazar lacks in diplomatic skills, he makes up for in warmth, openness and availability, says Lopez, who is making a documentary about the rabbi. A recent interview was conducted over a glass of brandy at his study at 1 a.m., at the end of one of Lazar’s frequent 15-hour work days.
He spent one of those workdays last year at Stockholm’s Pride Park, a gay pride event, where he casually sat down on the wooden floor of the speaker’s pavilion for a discussion about “Archetypical Queers in Torah.” Lazar also led the first official Jewish delegation to Sweden’s gay pride parade. This summer he will officiate at Sweden’s first gay Jewish marriage.
Lazar has integrated music into services in the Stockholm synagogue, sometimes banging on an African drum. Last year he started a sermon to a Christian group by inviting them “to get out of your Swedish bodies and into your souls” and sing along to a hasidic melody.
But sometimes with Lazar, politics eclipse the music. In January, he invited Behrang Miri, a rapper of Iranian descent, to attend a musical Sabbath service. Miri was a supporter of the May 2010 attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip — a clash between a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, and Israeli commandos resulted in nine deaths — and his invitation ruffled some Jewish feathers.
It was emblematic of the way Lazar, with his outspokenness and occasional heedlessness, has run afoul of some Swedish Jews, united in a communal umbrella known as an “einheitsgemeinde,” or unified community. As the community’s only non-Orthodox rabbi, critics say Lazar must be broadly acceptable if he is to effect change in a harmonious way.
“People here have nowhere else to go,” said Thomas Bab, the Stockholm Jewish community’s administrative director.
But to his defenders, some of whom have publicly signed petitions urging the board to yield to Lazar’s terms, such outspokenness is necessary in a country where only a fraction of the population regularly attends religious services.
“People were leaving before he came,” said Bernt Hermele, a synagogue caretaker. “We need a person like David for our community to stay relevant.”