Where Are They Now? / Miri Gold, the Trailblazing Reform Rabbi Still Waiting for a Paycheck

After initiating a court challenge that led to the recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis in Israel and made her eligible for state funding, Rabbi Gold has yet to see a shekel.

One year after Miri Gold won a landmark High Court battle in which the state agreed to pay her salary, the Reform rabbi is still waiting to see that promised paycheck.

In fact, the state’s foot-dragging prompted the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, which represented her, to bring the case back to court.

But Gold, 63, rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer’s Birkat Shalom congregation, is taking this latest hurdle in stride. “I spent seven years fighting for this – what’s a few more years?” she shrugs. “After all, I didn’t do this for the money, but the principle,” she adds. “It was always a symbolic issue for me.”

It was one year ago in May that the Reform movement won a protracted battle to get the state to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis, just as it supports Orthodox ones. The agreement came in the wake of the movement’s 2005 High Court of Justice petition, which claimed that the state was violating the basic principle of equality and human dignity, guaranteed under one of Israel’s Basic Laws -- the closest thing the country has to a constitution.

The state finally adopted the court’s recommendation, adding a few caveats: Non-Orthodox rabbis would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry, which payrolls Orthodox rabbis, and the ruling would initially apply only to rabbis in rural communities. It was anticipated that to start with, over a dozen Reform and Conservative rabbis could benefit from the decision, prompting media worldwide to trumpet: “Israel recognizes non-Orthodox Judaism.”

To date though, only two non-Orthodox Israelis have drawn state salaries as a result of the ruling, and one of them is not even a rabbi.  (In comparison, some 4,000 rabbis of Orthodox congregations receive state salaries.)

The rest have, like Gold, faced a series of hurdles from the Ministry of Culture in the form of unclear, rapidly changing and seemingly discriminatory criteria, says Orly Erez Likhovski, the Israel Religious Action Center lawyer behind the petition. 

“The ministry demanded things of me that it doesn’t ask of Orthodox community rabbis who get state salaries,” says Gold, “like proving that I work full-time and showing that our synagogue has a certain number of paid members.

“This is ironic since I am paid a part-time salary precisely because there is not enough money to pay me full time,” says Gold, shaking her head at this Catch 22. (To date, the Reform movement pays 70 percent, and the congregation, 30 percent of her salary.)

There was also a large discrepancy between the state salary that Orthodox rabbis receive, which includes many benefits, and the pay without perks for the two non-Orthodox candidates the ministry approved, says Erez Likhovski. So in February, the Reform movement submitted another petition against the state, which is due to be heard at the end of December.

In response to a different IRAC petition regarding city rabbis, as opposed to rural ones, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced days ago that it would for the first time give financial support to urban communities that request it for rabbis of their own choice, including non-Orthodox ones. The move, says Likhovski, “does not affect Gold, a rural rabbi, but is another result of the challenge her case posed.”

Or Doron,spokeswoman of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, says that according to existing criteria, the state can only fund non-Orthodox congregational rabbis if they are employed full time. The fact that Rabbi Gold was not employed full time made her ineligible for state funding in 2012.

However, the Ministry of Culture, in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, is trying to set up a meeting with all the parties, including IRAC, to find a solution to the problem that is satisfactory to all sides, and the ministry regrets that IRAC turned to the court before trying to resolve the issue through discussion. (For the ministry’s full response see end of story.)

An unlikely fighter

At first glance, Miri Gold is not the sort of person you would expect to find at the eye of a storm. The Detroit native describes herself, back in her college days at the University of Michigan, as “a person with no ambition.” Her first job, after graduating with a B.A. in philosophy, was as a typist. Later, she spent a whole decade working in the kitchen of Kibbutz Gezer. “The first course I got sent to was cooking,” she laughs.

Gold grew up in a Conservative Jewish home, and came to Israel on a college program in 1971 – the first of several visits, including a stint volunteering after the Yom Kippur War. By then, she had decided to live in Israel and joined a garin (a group) committed to establishing a liberal Jewish community.

The group chose Gezer, an abandoned kibbutz in the Judean foothills about 12 kilometers from the town of Ramle. (A third of its members had been killed in the War of Independence, prompting the kibbutz to disband in the early 1960s.)

Gold and the other members threw themselves into the frenzied job of building a kibbutz, but in the process, she says, they seemed to forget about the Jewish part of the dream. “At one point we stopped doing Kabbalat Shabbat. I thought: This is crazy, I didn’t come to Israel to have nothing in the way of Jewish tradition,” she says. “So I began leading the service myself.”

At the age of 44, the married mother of three went a step further and decided to enroll in rabbinical school. “The trigger was seeing that when kids on the kibbutz reached bar mitzvah age the only teacher in the region was an Orthodox one. There was simply no one in our community who had the knowledge to teach them.”

Gold decided to be that someone and in 1999, after five years of study, became the third woman rabbi ordained by the Reform movement in Israel. “This was so unusual,” she notes, “that my daughter, who was in the army at the time, didn’t tell her friends that her mother is a rabbi because she didn’t know how to even explain this to them.” 

There were many times during the seven-year court battle that Gold didn’t believe she would ever be awarded a state salary.

“I thought I would retire before anything happened. But my role model was always Alice Miller,” she says, referring to the South African-born Israeli who successfully petitioned the High Court to win the right for women to apply to the IDF’s pilot training course. “Even though Miller herself did not make the cut, she opened the way for other women. I felt that if I too can open the way for others, it will have been worth it.”

Now Gold adds with a hopeful glint, “I do believe the day will come – for me too.”

 Response from the Ministry of Culture and Sports Spokeswoman:

"In order for the state to fund spiritual cultural activities in a non-Orthodox Jewish congregation, a full time rabbi must be employed (in the congregation). Mrs. Miri Gold is the rabbi of the Birkat Shalom congregation of Kibbutz Gezer and funding for her was not approved for 2012 because she is employed on a basis of 96 hours per month, whereas the minimum number of hours required to be eligible for state financing is 182 hours of work a month. Given that, and in light of the fact that the deputy attorney general explicitly ordered that no changes be made for the year 2012, the Ministry of Culture was, from a legal point of view, unable to employ Rabbi Gold in the year 2012. However, the Ministry intends, together with the Ministry of Justice, to examine in the near future whether within the framework of the criteria it is possible to drop the requirement that a rabbi be employed full time in a place in which such employment is not justified by the number of congregation members. 

"It should be noted that in the past the High Court of Justice already rejected some of the claims of the petitioners regarding the criteria for support of spiritual activities of non-Orthodox congregations. Regarding other claims, it was decided, in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice, to hold a joint discussion with the participation of all the parties involved, including the Israel Religious Action Center, in order to examine together the preconditions, in light of the lessons that have been learned from the implementation of the criteria for support. To our regret, the petitioners chose to petition the High Court of Justice instead of first trying to resolve the disagreements concerning the criteria for funding through joint discussion. The Ministry of Culture submitted its response to the petition to the High Court, as required, but is at the same time attempting to coordinate a meeting with the petitioners in order to clarify the issues of disagreement in the hope of arriving at a solution that is satisfactory to all sides." 

Gil Cohen Magen