Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024

Conservatives and Reform in Israel: Making Inroads

Last week, we reported the result of a battle that began seven years ago. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah 2005, the Reform movement appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming, in the name of the Reform community of Kibbutz Gezer and its spiritual leader Rabbi Miri Gold, that the government was discriminating against Reform clergy. Although 70 of the Gezer district's 18,000 residents were registered as members of Gold's congregation, she was not receiving a full government salary like the 16 other rabbis in the district. This gripe was similar to liberal Jews general complaint that they receive scant government funding compared to their Orthodox counterparts. Conservatives complain, for example, that they only receive $50,000 annually, compared to $450 million or more given to Orthodox groups.

But lying at the heart of the Miri Gold appeal was something more fundamental than whether or not to pay her a monthly salary. The crux of the question was whether liberal rabbis are fit to be called rabbonim in the State of Israel. This is what held up the case for seven years.




After Gold’s petition was filed, the Supreme Court instructed both sides to mediate, and an agreement was reached in two acts. Although the State agreed to pay Reform clergy as “cultural leaders,” Reform was not expending its time and energy for a measly 8,000 shekels monthly salary. The goal was much more — to receive state agreement to define its spiritual leaders as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” rather than mere “community leaders.”


Last week, the State Attorney’s Office informed the High Court that after seven years, all disagreements were at an end; the second point was agreed upon. The State of Israel would formally acknowledge Reform leaders as rabbis; however, as a sop to the Orthodox, their funding would derive not from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, but from the Cultural and Sports Ministry.


Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, understood the significance of what had happened.


“The State’s agreement to support the activities of the reform rabbis in regional councils out of a clear recognition of their position as rabbis is an important breakthrough in the efforts to promote freedom of religion in Israel and is a true declaration for hundreds of thousands of Israelis,” he declared. “This is a first but significant step in the road to equality between the status of all streams of Judaism in Israel, and we hope that the State will indeed be careful in implementing its commitment to the court in full. We expect this move to lead to additional moves that will end the deep discrimination towards the non-orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel.”


Orthodox leaders were quick to condemn the agreement, pointing out that the state had no right to decide who deserves to be labeled as a rabbi.


Head of the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party, MK Daniel Herschkowitz said he would be meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “to explain the severity of the matter.”


“It is not possible that decisions concerning the Jewish identity of the state should be given over to legal advisers and bureaucratic clerks,” he said. “Just like these people aren’t able to decide who can and cannot get an academic degree, so too they are not able to decide who is fitting to bear a rabbinic qualification either.”


Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev said that he was considering introducing legislation to the Knesset to legally define the term “rabbi” as meaning an Orthodox rabbi. Heads of non-Orthodox groups would be titled as “cultural and social” leaders.


In similar vein, this week, Chairman of the Finance Committee, MK Moshe Gafni of Degel Hatorah, submitted an urgent proposal to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, arguing that the decision of the Attorney General to fund Reform and Conservative rabbis as rabbis exceeded the Attorney General’s authority. Acknowledging Reform spiritual leaders as rabbis, contrary to halachah, negates Israeli law as practiced during the sixty-four years since the founding of the state, he argued. To make such a change is not under the authorization of the Attorney General, but of the legislature, if it so wishes.


“Nothing has changed now, except the desire to look contemporary according to headlines that militate against classic Jewish ideas, but legally nothing at all has happened or changed,” he wrote.


Moshe Gafni insists that this letter is only the beginning of a fierce battle he and others will wage against the Attorney General’s agreement with the Reform congregations.


Practically speaking, the Reform victory was incomplete, for it promises salaries to only fifteen spiritual leaders working in farming or regional districts, while the bulk of Reform communities are in larger, urban settings. Indeed, Miri Gold said that the next goal will be to gain government acknowledgment for urban rabbis as well. Reform sources have also expressed their intent to try and place Reform rabbis in the Israeli army.


Also, at the end of January, the IRAC (the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center) petitioned the Supreme Court to instruct the state to appoint a non-Orthodox rabbi in Yerushalayim, complaining that, “the liberal public has been suffering from discrimination for years. Residents interested in non-Orthodox religious services must finance the services they consume themselves. This is a blatant case of discrimination in favor of the Orthodox public, which enjoys State-funded religious services.”


IRAC pointed out in the appeal that Yerushalayim has the highest number of official Orthodox rabbis (33) and non-Orthodox communities (15) in the country.




Reform and Conservative have been active in Israel for decades. Conservative Judaism celebrated its official 35th anniversary in Israel January this year. Presently, the Conservatives have sixty-three congregations in Israel, eight of them founded in the past couple of years, with over 15,000 affiliates who constitute a tiny proportion of Israel’s Jewish population – about 0.25%.


In 1979, the Israel Conservatives declared their own indigenous movement named Masorti, traditional, which is sometimes more “machmir” than its U.S. counterpart. For example, the Masorti movement of Israel has refused to avail itself of the kulah cooked up in America that permits Jews living far from shul to drive to prayers on Shabbos.


On a social level, the Conservative have had limited influence on Israel’s Jews. Five years ago, Yizhar Hess, the Executive Director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel, admitted that the movement has failed in its original dream of attracting Israelis to a half-way house, where they could observe a more “palatable” form of Judaism.


“The Masorti Movement endeavored to bring a new message to Israel, one that was innovative and could create a fundamental change in the attitude of Israeli society toward Judaism,” Hess wrote. “In many ways, this was the most fascinating solution that could be suited to Israeli society. This was not Reform Judaism, which can be seen to be too progressive and too radical, too un-Israeli and, sometimes, too innovative. It was not Orthodox Judaism, modern or otherwise… It was not Israeli secularism, which, even in cases where it is self-aware, stays on the intellectual rather than the experiential level. Thirty years – three decades. The Masorti Movement made many important and significant achievements during these three decades, but let us admit it: The revolution never came.”


However, Hess did boast of disturbing signs of change. The mere presence of Conservative places of worship provides Israelis with an alternative venue at times like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In a recent survey, 30% of Israelis answered the question, “Did you ever attend/did not attend a service or religious ceremony in a Conservative or Reform synagogue?”in the affirmative, although for most of them the visits were rare. Another bothering statistic he mentions is a recent survey indicating that within three years, the percentage of Israelis who would accept non-Orthodox conversions rose from 45% to 63%.


The Masorti Movement makes up for its small numbers by noisy public relations and aggressive arbitration in Israel’s courts. The goals of its Zionist organization, Mercaz, are ambitious. They include “pressing for religious pluralism, working for an equitable distribution of funding from the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Conservative Zionist programs in Israel and America, promoting civil rights in Israel for all people, encouraging electoral reform in Israel, and opposing any change in ‘Who is a Jew?’ and ‘Law of Return.’”


The Israeli Reform movement is represented by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ). Like the Conservatives, Reform is no newcomer to Israel’s shores. One of the earliest Reform or Progressive rabbis to settle here was Judah Leon Magnes, first Chancellor of the Hebrew University. The Reform Leo Baeck School was founded in Haifa in 1938; the first Reform synagogue, Yerushalayim’s Congregation Har El, was founded in 1958; and the first Reform kibbutz was established in 1983. Today, IMPJ has 30 congregations around the country and claims growing membership, which includes both immigrants and native Israelis.




Despite their small numbers, Reform and Conservative in Israel never cease fighting for equal rights. They have fought for years to have their spurious conversions acknowledged by the State of Israel so that their converts can enjoy the benefits of Israel’s Law of Return.


In the 1980 Shoshanna Miller case, a woman converted overseas failed to receive citizenship under the Law of Return as a Reform convert. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which, of course, ruled in her favor. The “Miller Precedent” only applied to conversions done outside Israel until December 1998, when a Yerushalayim District Court Judge ruled that Conservative and Reform converts could be registered as Jews, regardless of where their conversion took place. There were still obstacles. Scores of local Reform/Conservative converts still wended their way through the court system for years until February 20 this year, when the JTA reported a new development:


“Non-Orthodox Jews both inside and outside Israel are celebrating a historic court ruling recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions as valid and binding upon the Jewish state. Given the complexity of Israeli society, however, Wednesday’s ruling by Israel’s High Court of Justice is not binding on the Israeli rabbinate… The ruling pertains to conversions performed in Israel; those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside of Israel already are being registered as Jews.”


Shas has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to bypass these decisions by proposing new legislation that conversions will not be finalized until they receive the Chief Rabbinate’s approval, even if performed overseas.


The Reform movement has created the special Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) which boasts of 24 major achievements in 24 years, some in the religious arena and some involving civil rights. They include the following:


“1. IRAC achieved three major Supreme Court decisions that recognize Reform and Conservative conversions. The legal victories in 1995, 2002, and 2005 are vital to the ongoing struggle to recognize Reform and Conservative converts as Jews in Israel…


3. IRAC won a case in 2011 in which the Supreme Court ruled gender segregation on public buses illegal, a huge victory in IRAC’s goal to identify and end all forms of gender segregation in the public sphere in Israel…


“5. In 2007 IRAC won the first ever state funded Reform and Conservative synagogue buildings, securing plots of land and buildings from the state for Reform and Conservative congregations…


“7. IRAC initiated a case to file charges against Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Tzefat, for racist incitement [he had warned against renting apartments to Arabs], effectively ending his bid for Chief Rabbi of Israel, and bringing awareness to and legal action against religious-motivated racism from rabbis receiving state salaries…


“9. Representing Hebrew Un ion College in Jerusalem, IRAC succeeded in gaining the College’s recognition as an educational and religious institution in order to remove an unfair tax burden on the campus. IRAC has consistently been able to win this recognition for various Reform, Conservative, and pluralistic institutions…


“16. IRAC led the battle to ensure the creation of alternative cemeteries in 1996 for those who do not want or qualify for an Orthodox burial…


“18. IRAC is the leader of the Forum for Free Choice in Marriage, in which we have succeeded in promoting the option of wedding ceremonies performed outside of the Rabbinate… the spread of alternative weddings brings us closer to the goal of achieving civil marriage in Israel…


“21. In response to IRAC’s petition, the National Religious Services Authority announced to the religious councils across Israel that mikvah attendants must allow all Jewish women, not only the Orthodox, to bathe in the ritual bathhouse…


“22. IRAC succeeded in breaking the Orthodox monopoly on the hundreds of local municipal religious councils in Israel, making way for Reform and Conservative members…


“24. IRAC has won State funding for non-Orthodox conversion classes, setting a precedent towards equal funding for Reform and Conservative religious services.”


Even the Kosel has suffered depredations from liberals. When Conservatives complained that “not all groups are allowed to pray [there] as is their custom, especially, non-Orthodox groups,” the solution was to fight the issue in court and find a solution that few Torah Jews are aware of.


“After a prolonged legal struggle,” the organization boasts, “the Masorti Movement reached a landmark agreement with the Israeli government to provide a space for holding non-Orthodox services at the southern section of the Kosel, located in the ‘Davidson Center – Jerusalem Archeological Park’ site, where groups can pray in a more intimate and egalitarian setting. At no charge, The Masorti Movement supplies prayer books, Torah scrolls and reading tables for hundreds of groups who come to pray at the holy site each year. In addition, there is a limited number of prayer books Sim Shalom (English and Hebrew) and Va’ani Teffilati (all Hebrew) that we make available on a first-come-first-serve basis. This past year, we have had over 500 groups, almost 13,000 people, use our services.”


Last January, at a celebration of 35 years since the Conservative Movement’s founding in Israel, Shimon Peres became the first president to publicly appear at one of their affairs. He praised the movement’s “commitment to humanism, peace, human rights and the rights of citizens,” stressing that “different streams exist in Judaism, which has room for conservative and liberal viewpoints.”


Later that month, Conservative rabbis held the first public prayer in the Knesset shul.


“A historic prayer service was conducted in the Knesset on Wednesday by a leadership mission of the North American Masorti-Conservative movement, the first mixed men’s and women’s service ever held there,” the Conservatives announced. “The group, comprised of male and female rabbis and communal leaders from the US and Canada, met with several MKs to discuss the issue of religion and state, including Ministers Dan Meridor (Likud) and Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu), as well as Kadima’s Yohanan Plesner and Orit Zuaretz.”


The mixed service was led by Rabbi Jennifer Gorman in the Knesset shul, which until then was reserved strictly for Orthodox services.



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