The Ministry of Religious Services announced Thursday that it will, for the first time, allow rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements to serve as community rabbis in cities. The new regulations come after a legal struggle initiated by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski told The Times of Israel that the Center filed a petition with the Supreme Court in 2012 aiming to facilitate the appointment of two non-Orthodox religious leaders as community rabbis in Jerusalem. In a brief filed to the Court in advance of the June 11 hearing on the case, the ministry revealed that it will revamp entirely the way these rabbis are chosen.
In the past, community rabbis in cities were appointed by the Religious Services Ministry, and were exclusively Orthodox men. According to the ministry, the changes will allow urban communities to select their own rabbis, including those from non-Orthodox streams.
An earlier IRAC petition to the Supreme Court, from 2005, initiated the process that ultimately led to the new rules. The petition, originating in Kibbutz Gezer, asked that the Gezer Regional Council be allowed to pay the salary of Rabbi Miri Gold, the kibbutz’s Reform rabbi, as it does for Orthodox rabbis.
Last year, seven years after the petition was filed, the Supreme Court decided in IRAC’s favor, allowing rural towns and regional councils to choose their own rabbis, with salaries paid for by the state. However, the decision has yet to be fully implemented, IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski told The Times of Israel.
Rabbi Gold has yet to receive government funding. After the Supreme Court decision, the ministry decided that only rabbis who worked full-time would be eligible for state salaries. Gold felt she was trapped in a Catch-22. “I was working part-time because of the lack of funding, but the government wouldn’t pay a full salary because I was working part-time.”
In addition, Erez-Likhovski found that salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis were missing benefits given to their Orthodox counterparts.
Erez-Likhovski went back to the court on these matters, and a ruling is expected in December.
Gold is cautiously optimistic in the wake of the state’s new response to the 2012 petition. “I think this is a step in the right direction,” she told The Times of Israel. “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”
She hopes the process will help Americans feel more connected to Israeli Judaism. “I want American Jews to feel loved and not alienated. Someday, there will be enough people here who understand that there’s more than one way to be Jewish.”
Still, it will take time before changes are felt in Israel’s cities. The specific criteria by which community rabbis will be approved have yet to be set, and the timeline for implementing the new system is unclear. Erez-Likhovski does not intend to sit by passively. “We are not going to wait another seven years,” she promised.
IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, was founded in 1987 with the goal of advancing pluralism in Israeli society.
The state filed its brief in the 2012 case as a bitter political battle brews between Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on a related matter. Bennett’s Jewish Home party recently vetoed a law initiated by Hatnua that proposed to add 50 women to the body that selects the chief rabbi, even though it had previously supported the bill.
Bennett’s Jewish Home party claimed that it would not support the legislation if the women appointed come primarily from the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Livni attacked Bennett on her Facebook page. “Naftali Bennett’s party, the Jewish Home, decided to rob women of the right to vote… This is blatant exclusion of women that improperly uses a veto to block an ethical law, approved by all factions of the coalition.”
Livni promised to match Bennett’s veto and hold up his party’s attempts to reform the Religious Services Ministry.
Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.