In first, Reform rabbis in Israel receive state salary

Reform Movement marks bittersweet victory, awaits full parity as Culture Ministry transfers payment to Miri Gold and 3 others

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Rabbi Miri Gold in front of the 'Aron Kodesh' at Kibbutz Gezer's Kehilat Birkat Shalom (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Miri Gold in front of the 'Aron Kodesh' at Kibbutz Gezer's Kehilat Birkat Shalom (photo credit: Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

In the culmination of a small battle in an eight-year war, the Culture and Sport Ministry transferred funds Tuesday to the Reform Movement of Israel to cover the salaries of the four non-Orthodox communal rabbis the government was ordered to pay in June 2012.

The Haaretz daily broke the story Wednesday, reporting that the funds were paid by the Religious Services Ministry — which would have made it a huge victory for the Reform Movement in fighting for parity with Orthodoxy. The spokesperson of the Religious Services Ministry, Daniel Bar, however, told The Times of Israel Wednesday that no monies have been transferred by his ministry to the Reform Movement, and “that his ministry does not pay Reform rabbis.”

The Religious Services Ministry released a statement saying, “As opposed to what has been published in the press, the Religious Services Ministry has not budgeted for Reform rabbis in 2013. The budget for Reform rabbis comes solely through the Culture Ministry.”

At the forefront of a controversial 2005 lawsuit brought by the Israel Religious Action Center against the State of Israel is American-born Rabbi Miri Gold, who calls herself pluralist Judaism’s “poster girl, guinea pig, the one to have the darts thrown at.”

Steven Beck, the director of IRAC’s Israel-Diaspora Relations, told The Times of Israel that judging by reactions to Gold’s appearances overseas, she’s more of a rock star.

Back in June 2012, optimism reigned as IRAC, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, won an important battle for Gold and three other communal Reform rabbis toward parity in title and payment with their Orthodox brethren when the government was ordered to pay the quartet’s salaries.

The other three rabbis are Stacy Blank of Tzur Hadassah, Benjie Gruver of Yahel and Gadi Raviv of Har Halutz.

Following vehement objections by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox leaderships, arrangements were made to pay Gold, the rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer’s regional synagogue Kehilat Birkat Shalom, as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community” through the Culture Ministry, not the Religious Services Ministry.

Currently and for the foreseeable future, said sources close to the minister’s office Wednesday, only Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox communal rabbis will receive salaries from the Religious Services Ministry.

In 2012 former Sephardic chief rabbi Shlomo Amar, told an ultra-Orthodox radio station that in writing the historic 2012 mandate, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein made a “reckless” decision, which could ”uproot all the foundations of the Torah.”

Subsequently and until Tuesday, Gold hadn’t received a shekel as “the enormous arm of bureaucracy took its hold,” said Beck, and obstacles were increasingly found as objectors to the landmark decision were “using the apparatus of government to slow down payment.”

Beck credited the change to a government coalition without ultra-Orthodox parties as a factor in the Reform movement’s victory, saying this government understands the importance of a good relationship with the Diaspora.

“I don’t know if we’d have the success if it wasn’t for the constant pressure from the Diaspora, always asking leaders, ‘What about Miri Gold?’ It played a very active part in making this happen,” said Beck.

While a more complete success is still to be had for Gold — payment from the Religious Services Ministry — Tuesday’s transfer is still a victory in that she has finally, after 18 months, been paid.

“We’ve gotten a foot in the door [of religious parity] and are moving towards the next level — to be part of decisions on personal status: freedom of choice in marriage, divorce, conversions. We need to have that democratized so the number of religious services in Israel is at least as diverse as overseas,” said Beck.

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