Israel, for first time, will pay salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis

Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer this week became the first non-Orthodox rabbi in Israel to have her salary paid by the government.

The May 29 announcement that she and other non-Orthodox rabbis will now be paid by the state represents a major victory for the Reform and Conservative movements.

But it’s a victory more of principle than major practical changes — at least, so far.

In its announcement, the attorney general’s office said Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

Rabbi Miri Gold leads services at Kibbutz Gezer photo/courtesy of religious action center of reform judaism

The decision applies only to Israel’s regional councils — large districts of rural communities — and not to Israeli cities. The non-Orthodox rabbis, unlike their Orthodox colleagues, will still have no authority over Jewish law or ceremonies such as marriage or divorce. Furthermore, rather than being funded by the Religious Services Ministry, as are the country’s Orthodox rabbis, they will receive their salaries from the Ministry of Culture and Sport.

The decision will not affect most Israeli Reform and Conservative Jews, because the vast majority live in large metropolitan areas such as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, non-Orthodox Israeli leaders said it opens a door toward full equality with the Orthodox.

“The importance of the decision is that it sets the model for the relations between the non-Orthodox movements and the government,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of Israel’s Reform movement.

The movement has a petition in court to give Reform rabbis in cities the same rights as rabbis in regional council areas. “There’s no reason to adopt this in the regional councils and not in the cities, and the government knows it,” Kariv said.

It’s not clear when the Israeli courts will decide on the petition, but if it is accepted, the change would affect virtually all Conservative and Reform congregations in the country.

Outside Israel, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the World Union for Progressive Judaism were among those lauding the decision.

The announcement followed out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by Gold and the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The rabbi had petitioned the state to fund the Kibbutz Gezer Reform community just as it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

The government has agreed initially to fund 15 non-Orthodox rabbis in the regional council areas. But the funding could increase as more liberal congregations are established.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of Israel’s Conservative movement, or Masorti, said Conservative and Reform Jews in these areas no longer will have to donate privately to support their rabbis while also paying taxes to support the Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate.

This change, he hopes, will allow new Conservative congregations to form and will reduce the Israeli movement’s dependence on donations from North America. Three-quarters of the Masorti movement’s annual $4.5 million budget now comes from the diaspora.

“The only way for a Masorti rabbi to act as a Masorti rabbi was to be able to raise enough funds from donations and dues to make a living,” Hess said.

Kariv, Hess and their American counterparts believe this week’s decision could pave the way to increased legitimacy for their movements in Israel.

David Lissy, executive director of the Masorti Foundation in New York, pointed to two recent surveys of Israeli Jews showing increased awareness of and identification with non-Orthodox movements. One, a recent report by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation, showed that 30 percent of Israeli Jews had attended a Conservative or Reform service.

“More and more people feel that they would like to take responsibility for their Jewish identity,” Hess said. “They understand that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter