January 11, 2014

​Activists Welcome Israel’s Funding Some non-Orthodox Rabbis

By MICHELE CHABIN © 2014 Religion News Service

Advocates for religious pluralism in Israel
welcomed the news that the Israeli government this week began funding the
salaries of five non-Orthodox rabbis serving in rural areas, after an
eight-year legal battle for equality waged by the Reform and Conservative

The activists emphasized, however, that the fight
for official recognition of non-Orthodox branches of Judaism in Israel is far
from over.

Legally, only Orthodox rabbis and institutions
have government sanction in Israel, and until this week’s development, they
were the only ones to receive government funding. Reform and Conservative
rabbis and institutions have had to rely solely on membership dues and
donations from their sister movements in North America.

“It’s important to clarify that this is
definitely a step forward, but that the Israeli government still does not fully
recognize the work of non-Orthodox rabbis,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of
the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the umbrella organization of all
the Reform communities and institutions in Israel.

The payment, Kariv noted, will support only four
of the 60 Reform rabbis that serve across the country. (The fifth rabbi to be
paid is part of the Conservative movement.) So while the high court
“recognized the necessity to fund non-Orthodox religious services on an
egalitarian basis, we are still prevented from having our services—marriages,
divorces, burials—recognized and funded. But this represents another step
forward in this long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.”

Most Jews in Israel and the Diaspora describe
themselves as either non-Orthodox or unaffiliated.

Much of the pressure to accommodate non-Orthodox
Jews is coming from American Jews who lobby on Israel’s behalf on Capitol Hill
and raise tens of millions of dollars every year to support everything from
Israeli hospitals to immigrant absorption programs and services.

American Jews were gratified when, last year,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a committee to come up with a plan
to accommodate non-Orthodox and women’s prayer at the Western Wall, which is
divided into Orthodox men’s and women’s sections. During the course of
negotiations with American Reform and Conservative leaders, Religious Services
Minister Naftali Bennett agreed to upgrade an existing egalitarian prayer space
near the Wall.

Bennett, an Orthodox Jew whose American-born
parents were originally non-Orthodox, became the first minister of religious
affairs to participate in a conference organized by the Conservative movement.

Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who heads Hiddush, an
organization that promotes religious freedom and diversity, said the
government’s newfound willingness to cooperate with the non-Orthodox stems from
several developments.

“It is a direct result of the pressure brought to
bear via legal challenges, which are ongoing, and by the strong expressions of
protests on the part of the Jewish leadership in North America,” Regev said.

He said many mainstream Israelis have developed a
greater appreciation for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which have led
legal battles against attempts by Orthodox leaders, including parliamentarians,
to impose strict gender segregation, whether at the Western Wall or on public

“There is growing public anxiety over the unholy
alliance between religion and state,” Regev said, referring to the frequent
mixing of religion and politics in many spheres of Israeli life.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti
(or Conservative) movement in Israel, said half a million Israelis define
themselves as either Reform or Conservative Jews, “a number that has doubled in
the past 10 years.”

Despite what Hess called “a well-organized,
well-funded” attempt by the Orthodox establishment “to delegitimize” the non-Orthodox
streams, “there is way more openness and desire to hear that there is more than
one way to be Jewish.”

That, he said, “is a step forward.”

Hess said the Reform and Conservative movements
are waiting to learn the fate of their petition to the Israel High Court
seeking equal pay for the remainder of their rabbis.