For the First Time in History, Israel Paying Salary to Reform Rabbis

Eight-year legal battle comes to a close; Reform Movement in Israel pledges to continue 'struggle toward pluralism, religious freedom.'

For the first time in the country’s history, the Religious Services Ministry Tuesday transferred money into the bank account of the Reform Movement in Israel to cover the salaries of four Reform rabbis who lead congreagations in various local councils.

The move comes comes eight years after the Reform Movement first launched a legal battle for funding on the same basis as Orthodox rabbis and against the background of the current government’s increaing recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Read more on the growth of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel

“This is a historic and important step in the long struggle toward pluralism, religious freedom and the recognition by the State of Israel of all branches of Judaism,” Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform Movement in Israel,” said, adding: “The Reform Movement will continue to act to redefine the relationship between religion and state in Israel and to separate the religious establishment from the authorities; however, as long as the state continues to fund religious services and the salaries of rabbis, we will make sure that this is done on an egalitarian basis.”

The 300,000 shekels ($86,455) deposited Tuesday is expected to cover the salaries of rabbis in the regional councils of Gezer, Mateh Yehudah, Misgav and Hevel Ayalot.

Rabbi Miri Gold of the Birkat Shalom congregation at Kibbutz Gezer, headed the petition to the Supreme Court in 2005, demanding that the Gezer Regional Council and other councils fund the positions of congregational leaders, even if they are not Orthodox, exactly as Orthodox rabbis are funded in hundreds of other local authorities, communities and neighborhoods throughout the country. In addition to Gold’s position, the funding will cover the rabbi’s salary at Tzur Hadassah in the Jerusalem Mountains, Har Halutz in the Galilee Mountains and Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat.

Tuesday's transfer of funds implements an arrangement that was approved by the Supreme Court 18 months ago, following prolonged out-of-court negotiations. The state demanded at first that the non-Orthodox rabbis be called "community leaders," but later acceded to a High Court order to recognize them as rabbis.

The Shas party was opposed to the funding coming from the budget of the Religious Services Ministry during the tenure of the previous government. The compromise that was reached put the Culture and Sports Ministry in charge of setting regulations and transferring funding to the Reform Movement, which employs the four rabbis.

This latest move is one of a number of recent steps toward greater official recognition of non-Orthodox branches of Judaism. These include the government’s decision to establish an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and the participation of Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett in the international conference of the Conservative Movement. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Reform Movement’s U.S. conference by live video link, noting that “Israel is and must continue to be the homeland of the entire Jewish people. That is the place where all Jews, including Reform Jews, experience nothing less than audacious hospitality.” 

Gil Cohen Magen