The Israeli government has decided to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis and recognize them as community leaders.
The attorney general’s office advised the Supreme Court last week 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.
Only rabbis in farming communities and regional councils – not in cities – will be eligible for the funding. The vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative communities are in large population centres.
The attorney general’s office has said that for now, up to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis may receive state support. Before this decision, only Orthodox rabbis received state funding.
Some 4,000 Orthodox rabbis serve as rabbis of their communities and draw a salary from the government. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said the rabbis to be recognized would be known as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.”
The non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salary from the Culture and Sports Ministry, rather than the Religious Services Ministry, which funds Orthodox rabbis. In addition, funding will go only to the rabbis of communities that request it, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Non-Orthodox rabbis, unlike their Orthodox colleagues, will have no authority over Jewish law or ceremonies such as marriage or divorce.
Last 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. Rabbi Gold had asked the government to fund the Gezer Reform community just as it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.
A panel of judges presided over out-of-court negotiations, led by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein. Earlier this month, the panel asked the attorney general to intervene.
Many in the Jewish world greeted the announcement enthusiastically.
Natan Sharansky, chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, called the development a step toward Jewish unity.
“I believe this decision has both practical and symbolic importance,” Sharansky said. “It contributes significantly to the strengthening of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel. The Jewish Agency sees this decision as a bridge and as another step toward bringing unity to the Jewish people.
“The government’s decision… gives official recognition to these dynamic community leaders and rabbis who work tirelessly to build strong and vibrant Zionist and Jewish communities throughout Israel,” Sharansky added.
“We have a long-term goal to have an inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “We’re going to be patient and persevere until the ideal meets the real. This is one step forward in that effort.”
ARZA Canada, the Reform Zionist organization in Canada, applauded the attorney general’s announcement, noting Rabbi Gold will be the first non-Orthodox rabbi to be recognized and paid by the State of Israel.
“After a seven-year court battle, which so many of us have supported, it is rewarding to see that progress is being made for a pluralistic approach to religion in Israel. This is a very significant victory for religious freedom in Israel,” said Les Rothschild, president of ARZA Canada.
Rabbi Jennifer Gorman, executive-director of Mercaz-Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism, both Conservative organizations, called the development an important step.
Although only rabbis in smaller communities are affected, it opens the door to the possibility of expanding recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis in larger centres, she said.
“Our hope is that it will keep the conversation going and that Conservative and Reform rabbis are accepted for all communities,” she said.
“The Masorti movement is growing by leaps and bounds in Israel” with 63 congregations now part of the Masorti movement, with eight of them added in just the last few years, she said.
“With that sort of growth, you can see that it’s also important to Israel that as a pluralistic view of Judaism grows in Israel, the government goes along with that,” Rabbi Gorman said.
“This is a big step for religious pluralism and democracy in Israel,” Rabbi Gold said. “Israeli Jews want religious alternatives, and with this decision, the state is starting to recognize this reality. There is more than one way to be Jewish, even in Israel.”
In New York, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Jewish Conservative movement and the World Union for Progressive Judaism were also 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.”
Yizhar Hess, the executive director of Israel’s Masorti movement, said there is a more important issue than the initial number of communities receiving financial support: Conservative and Reform Jews in these areas will no longer 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 (US) 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.”
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 per cent 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.”
ARZA noted last week’s announcement followed other developments advocated by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. Among them, the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the placement of a Reform rabbi on the religious council of Mevasseret Zion (a town west of Jerusalem); the High Court ruled that forced gender segregation on public transportation is discriminatory and prohibited, and it ordered the allocation of pre-fab units to non-Orthodox congregations for synagogue buildings.
With files from Paul Lungen