Non-Orthodox movements making inroads in Israel

After a religious council near Jerusalem allowed a female Reform rabbi to participate in its proceedings, some advocates of liberal Judaism in the country are hailing their growing success at making inroads into the Orthodox-dominated religious infrastructure.

Early this month, Orthodox members of the religious council in Mevasseret Zion, west of Jerusalem, agreed to convene a meeting with the participation of Rabbi Alona Lisitsa. The 41-year-old is an immigrant from Kiev and received her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.

“This isn’t just a victory for the Reform movement. This is a victory for democracy in Israel,” Lisitsa said.

“Thousands attend our Yom Kippur prayers. We are easily the largest congregation in town,” she said of the 200 dues-paying families in her congregation, Kehilat Mevasseret.

Like hundreds of similar bodies across the nation, Mevasseret Zion’s religious council allocates taxpayers’ money for an array of religious services, such as kashrut supervision, mikvah (ritual bath) maintenance, the building of synagogues and the payment of rabbis’ salaries.

In the 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that the religious services minister, a portfolio traditionally held by a haredi Orthodox or Modern Orthodox Zionist political party member, could not disqualify a Reform or Conservative (Masorti) Israeli from serving on a religious council.

However, in nearly every city where a non-Orthodox representative was appointed to a religious council, the Orthodox members of the body refused to cooperate. As a result, in dozens of towns across the nation, special “religious services supervisors” were appointed to replace the recalcitrant religious councils, essentially bypassing the Supreme Court decision.

Two decades later, some observers believe the Mevasseret Zion development — ordered by a court — could signal that the Orthodox establishment has reconciled itself to the permanency of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.

But Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, a member of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, rejected the notion that Lisitsa’s participation constituted a sea change.

“All members of the religious council sign off on an affidavit that states that everyone is subordinate to the directives of the [Orthodox] Chief Rabbinate,” Margi said in a written statement. His ministry, he added, would continue to provide budgets “in an egalitarian and accessible manner” to all.

In addition to the fight for equal representation on religious councils, the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal arm, is fighting a number of additional battles. IRAC has succeeded in obtaining state funding for the building of two synagogues — one in Carmiel, a town in the Galilee, and another at Kibbutz Gezer, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In a 6-year-old case now in front of the Israeli Supreme Court, IRAC is demanding that the state pay a salary to Rabbi Miri Gold, a female Reform rabbi who heads a congregation at Kibbutz Gezer. Like hundreds of Orthodox rabbis across the nation who receive salaries from the state, Gold performs all the duties of a rabbi for her congregants, who like all Israelis pay the taxes that fund rabbis’ salaries.

Margi rejects the idea that Gold should be recognized as a rabbi. In recent weeks, he has been bombarded by more than 5,000 emails and letters from Reform Jews around the world calling on him to authorize her appointment, according to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Masorti movement in Israel is not focusing its energies on getting members elected to religious councils, but toward building communities, said Yizhar Hess, the group’s executive director.

“We have 64 communities across the nation. Our prayer book Va’ani Tefilati was on the best-seller list for four weeks. There are 230 children on the waiting list for preschools … in Beersheva,” he said. “Tens of thousands of Israelis have come into contact with Masorti Judaism, and there is municipal-level cooperation in dozens of towns and cities.”

Hess pointed to a recent survey conducted by the Guttman Center that showed 8 percent of Israelis define themselves as either Reform or Conservative, up from 5 percent in 1999 and 4 percent in 1991.

“That means well over half a million Israelis define themselves as either Reform or Conservative,” Hess said, “and that number will only grow.”

Nonetheless, a 2010 report by Bar-Ilan University professors Asher Cohen and Bernard Susser — “Reform Judaism in Israel: The Anatomy of Weakness” — argued that liberal expressions of Judaism had little chance of taking root in Israel.

“Traditional-minded Jews whose day-to-day practice might resemble the sort of lifestyle led by Reform and Conservative Jews nevertheless view non-Orthodox forms of Judaism as somehow unauthentic and foreign,” said Cohen.

Cohen dismissed the Guttman Center survey results, announced earlier this year, as being skewed by a large number of Israelis who chose Reform or Conservative not so much as a self-definition, but as a protest against the Orthodox establishment.

But Kariv of the Reform movement said that both the survey and the appointment of Lisitsa “signal in a clear way there is no practical way for the Orthodox establishment to prevent us from gaining legal and political equality.”