News Analysis: Israeli Government Decision to Fund Reform, Conservative Rabbis Sets Precedent for Equality with Orthodox

[by Ben Sales]

NEW YORK, May 31, 2012 (JTA) – This week’s announcement that the Israeli government, for the first time, will pay the salaries of some non-Orthodox rabbis represents a major victory for the Reform and Conservative movements.

But it’s a victory more of principle than major practical changes – at least, so far.

The Israeli attorney general’s office said Tuesday that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

For now, the decision applies only to Israel’s regional councils – large districts of rural communities – but not Israeli cities. And the non-Orthodox rabbis, unlike their Orthodox colleagues, will have no authority over Jewish law or ceremonies such as marriage or divorce. Rather than being funded by the nation’s Religious Services Ministry, they will receive their salaries from the Ministry of Culture and Sport.

Even though the decision will not affect most Israeli Reform and Conservative Jews because the vast majority of them live in large metropolitan areas such as Jerusalem and metro Tel Aviv, the decision nevertheless opens a door toward full equality with the Orthodox, non-Orthodox Israeli leaders said.

“The importance of the decision is that it sets the model for the relations between the non-Orthodox movements and the government,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of Israel’s Reform movement.

The Reform movement also has a petition in court to give Reform rabbis in cities the same rights of those in regional council areas. According to Kariv, Tuesday’s decision only gives full-service synagogues with at least 50 affiliated families in regional council areas eligibility for the funding.

“There’s no reason to adopt this in the regional councils and not in the cities, and the government knows it,” he said.

It’s not clear when the Israeli courts will decide on the Reform movement’s petition, but if the petition is accepted, the change would affect virtually all Conservative and Reform congregations.

This week’s announcement followed out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. Gold had petitioned the state to fund the Gezer Reform community just as it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

Initially, the government has agreed to fund 15 non-Orthodox rabbis in the regional council areas. But the funding could increase as more Conservative and Reform congregations are established.

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, known as Masorti, said there is a more important issue than the initial number of communities receiving financial support: Conservative and Reform Jews in these areas no longer will have to donate privately to support their rabbis while also paying taxes to support the Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate.

This, he hopes, will allow more Conservative congregations to form and reduce the Israeli movement’s dependence on donations from America. Three-quarters of the Masorti movement’s annual budget of approximately $4.5 million now comes from the Diaspora.

“The only way for a Masorti rabbi to act as a Masorti rabbi was to be able to raise enough funds from donations and dues to make a living,” Hess said. “We know that there are more communities that want to reach out and have us.”

For years the government has held the position that non-Orthodox rabbis deserve these rights: A 2008 government memorandum to the court in Gold’s case said that “a town with a non-Orthodox community that is interested in cultural and communal activities deserves funding from the state.”

The attorney general’s office used that memorandum as a basis for its decision, but by defining non-Orthodox activities as “cultural and communal,” it shifted responsibility for overseeing the activities to the Ministry of Culture and Sport – meaning that Reform and Conservative rabbis still do not have state-recognized authority over Jewish law.

But Kariv, Hess and their American counterparts believe that this week’s decision could pave the way to increased legitimacy for their movements in Israel.

David Lissy, executive director of the Masorti Foundation in New York, pointed to two recent surveys of Israeli Jews showing increased awareness of and identification with non-Orthodox movements. One, a recent report by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai foundation, showed that 30 percent of Israeli Jews had attended a Conservative or Reform service.

“More and more people feel that they would like to take responsibility for their Jewish identity,” Hess said. “They understand that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”

Outside Israel, the Rabbinical Assembly of the U.S. Jewish Conservative movement and the World Union for Progressive Judaism were among those that lauded the decision.

“This is a historic day for Israelis and Jews around the world,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “In order for Judaism to grow and thrive in Israel, it is necessary that the government recognize its obligation to provide equal funding to various Jewish religious streams and expressions that flower in the Jewish state.”

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