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In first, non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state funding

Attorney general recommends that Reform spiritual leader be put on government payroll

In a historic move for pluralistic Judaism in Israel, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has adopted a recommendation that would allow non-Orthodox rabbis to receive state funding, in response to a 2005 petition by American-born Reform Rabbi Miri Gold and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) to the High Court.

Although the justices have not yet handed down their verdict, which is expected in the next few days, Weinstein’s approval of Gold’s petition marks the first time a non-Orthodox rabbi has been deemed deserving of a government salary by the State of Israel, which heretofore has only recognized Orthodox Judaism.

Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC, greeted the news with great enthusiasm: “I think we are alive in a historic moment,” she enthused, “The first olah from Detroit [to become a rabbi] … the first non-Orthodox rabbi to be recognized by the state of Israel — Miri Gold — has made history. And it is high time that the state recognized that its citizens have a diversity of religious needs that cannot be met only by Orthodox Judaism.”

Gold, the rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, petitioned the Supreme Court seven years ago asking that she receive a state salary for her work as a municipal rabbi. Although Gold’s Orthodox colleagues receive a salary funded by Israeli taxpayers for their duties, the Gezer rabbi was paid privately, meaning her congregants were forced to pay twice for her services.

Hoffman elaborated: “Every Israeli citizen pays for religious services from his tax money; there is no reason why Reform or Conservative Jews should have to pay privately for something that should be paid from public funds. And Israelis hate to be suckers.”

Local councils provide religious services for their residents using government funds, but non-Orthodox clergy members were not welcome on the municipal committees, nor did they receive a state salary.

Earlier this week, in another historic victory for the Reform movement, Rabbi Alona Lisitsa took her seat on Mevasseret Zion’s religious council, as ordered by the High Court of Justice. Lisitsa was named to the local council in 2009, but the Religious Affairs Ministry delayed approving her appointment until the court made its decision, according to media reports.

Although the Supreme Court ruled in the 1990s that there should be no barrier for Reform or Conservative rabbis who were elected to serve on local religious councils, Orthodox members of the councils were not amenable to sitting with non-Orthodox representatives, according to the JTA.

In Israel the Chief Rabbinate, a government institution which is run by the Orthodox establishment, is responsible for all aspects of religious life for Jewish citizens of Israel, from birth to marriage to death. Marriage ceremonies conducted inside Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis are not recognized by the state, and non-Orthodox conversions are invalid.

However, according to a survey which was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in 2009 and released in early 2012, more Israelis define themselves as Reform or Conservative than Haredi. Further, 61 percent of Israelis “agree that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox in Israel.”

“Seventy percent of Israelis are seeking a different way to be Jewishly observant in the Jewish state. An Orthodox monopoly is bad not only for Judaism and for the State of Israel, but for Orthodoxy itself. This monopoly has stultified Orthodoxy,” IRAC’s Hoffman said, noting gladly that Weinstein’s decision would allow Israelis to choose the way they observe Judaism.

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