Israel to Fund Non-Orthodox Rabbis
Last week, in a major victory for religious pluralism in Israel, the State Attorney's office announced that that the Ministry of Religious Services will allow rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements to serve as community rabbis. The decision follows a seven-year legal struggle, which culminated with a 2012 ruling from the Supreme Court finally allowing for the publicly-financed funding of non-Orthodox rabbis in some communities.
The struggle began in 2005 with a petition to the Supreme Court by veteran NIF grantee Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). IRAC's petition asked that the Gezer Regional Council be allowed to pay the salary of Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, who was serving their community. Negotiations hinged on what term would be used for non-Orthodox rabbis and according to reports, the final designation was "rabbi of a non-Orthodox community." In response to the ruling, Rabbi Gold said, "Someday, there will be enough people here who understand that there's more than one way to be Jewish."
This is really not the end of the struggle, as important distinctions remain. Salaries for the Reform and Conservative rabbis will come from the Ministry of Culture and Sports, rather than the Ministry of Religious Services. The rabbis will not be government employees, but will instead receive stipends from the state. Additionally, they will have no authority over religious and halachic matters. Finally, the ruling only covers rural communities, not cities.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of Israel's Reform movement, said, "The state's decision to support the activities of Reform rabbis in regional councils, while clearly acknowledging their roles as rabbis, is an important breakthrough in the efforts to advance freedom of religion in Israel. This is the first, but significant, step toward equalizing the status of all streams of Judaism in Israel and we hope the state will indeed ensure the court's commitments are fully applied. We expect that the state's agreement to recognize the community activities of Reform rabbis will lead to additional steps that will annul the deep discrimination against non-Orthodox streams in Israel."
In the meantime, IRAC is working on gaining state recognition for Jerusalem Reform rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman as an urban congregational rabbi.
Many political observers have pointed out that with the ultra-Orthodox parties not represented in the current coalition government; the Religious Affairs Ministry – run by nationalist-religious party leader Naftali Bennett – can further liberalize some of Israel's current policies that restrict religious tolerance and practice.