In a meeting Tuesday, Chief Rabbi Harav David Lau and the head of the Israel Firefighters Department, Dedi Simchi discussed the recent resignation of Rabbi Menachem Perl, outgoing rabbi of the Israel Fire Department. The two pledged to find a replacement for Rabbi Perl, and to find solutions to some of the issues that have been plaguing observant firefighters, especially regarding the growing of beards.
In an open letter to Simchi published in numerous Israeli media outlets, Rabbi Perl last week said that he felt he could no longer effectively do his job, given the lack of cooperation by fire department officials, and Simchi himself. The fire department bans beards altogether, even though experts point out that such a ban is not necessary; there is almost no consideration given to Shabbos or Yomim Tovim in the assigning of shifts, or the operations of the department; and Simchi had refused to meet with Rabbi Perl on any of these matters. In addition, several of his assistants were recently dismissed, including one whose job was to look after chareidi members of the department, Rabbi Perl wrote.
In a letter to Simchi backing Rabbi Perl’s complaints, Harav Lau chastised Simchi over his refusal to cooperate with the rabbi on religious matters. “Why do all the rescue and safety services in the country operate within a halachic framework, except for the fire department? I understand the responsibilities you carry very clearly, and I admire the bravery of the men under your command,” Rabbi Lau wrote. “But there is no reason these things cannot be done within the framework of halachah. I would be very happy to meet with you in order to develop such a framework, and to assist the Fire Department to work together with the Rabbinate in order to ensure that the Jewish character of Israel remains intact.”
At their meeting Tuesday, Harav Lau and Simchi decided that a special panel would be established to discuss how observant firefighters could grow beards. At issue is a type of mask firefighters need to wear when entering burning buildings. The fire department does not have enough of the masks, and says that the masks it does have do not allow those who have beards to use them properly, making it impossible for them to serve as firefighters.
In a statement, Harav Lau praised Simchi for showing sensitivity to the issues discussed, and for his interest in ensuring that observant Israelis could serve in the fire department.