In First, State Will Pay Salaries of non-Orthodox City Rabbis in Israel

The official application, however, refers to them as ‘community leaders’ rather than rabbis, with wages significantly lower than their Orthodox counterparts

Reform and Conservative rabbis protest at the Western Wall, November, 2016.
Emil Salman

Reform and Conservative rabbis serving in Israeli cities and towns will for the first time be eligible for state-funded salaries. Until now, only non-Orthodox rabbis based in outlying regional councils qualified.

Their salaries will be paid by the Culture and Sports Ministry. In contrast, Orthodox rabbis in Israel have their salaries paid by the Religious Services Ministry. The call for applications to receive state funding, issued about two months ago, avoids using the term “rabbi” to refer to the spiritual leaders of non-Orthodox congregations; rather, it calls them “community leaders.” It also doesn’t use the designations “Conservative” and “Reform,” referring to them instead as “renewed communities.”

The deadline for applying is Sunday, June 2.

Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the High Court of Justice seven years ago to demand the same salaries from the state for their rabbis as Orthodox rabbis receive. Two such petitions were dismissed on technical grounds, and a third was filed in April. It is still pending.

The Reform and Conservative movements say they have no intention of withdrawing their petition since the funding being offered by the government does not meet their demands for parity.

“The sums of money are ridiculous, and the criteria for eligibility are way too strict,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, director of the legal department at the Israel Religious Action Center, which is representing the movements in court. “It makes it very difficult for us to get excited about this.”

She said that Orthodox rabbis on the state payroll earn on average three times more than what the ministry was offering Reform and Conservative rabbis.

“This discrimination is enraging,” she said, “and we intend to fight on.”

Still, according to Erez-Likhovski, dozens of Reform and Conservative congregations around Israel were expected to apply for the funding.

Laura Wharton, a representative of Meretz in the Jerusalem city council, described the decision to fund non-Orthodox city rabbis as “very important” and “clearly a step in the right direction, toward giving full and equal recognition to different streams of Judaism.”

"It is particularly welcome at a time when conflict over the role of religion in Israel, and the Orthodox monopoly on it, is under discussion as election approach,” she noted, but cautioned this was "not enough.”

"I do hope that the pluralist community worldwide will continue to help us in the struggle for religious tolerance and equality,” she said

In order to qualify for state funding, a Reform or Conservative congregation must have at least 40 households registered as members and must hold at least 10 hours of activities a week. It is also required to have access to a building where it regularly holds services and other activities.

A total of 35 Reform and 55 Conservative congregations operate in Israeli cities, towns and regional councils today. Together, they employ 51 rabbis.

Non-Orthodox rabbis serving in regional councils first began receiving salaries in 2014. The state was forced to pay them after a landmark High Court ruling. Currently, about a dozen such rabbis are on the state payroll. Aside from one, they all belong to the Reform movement; serving a regional council generally requires driving on Shabbat, and most Conservative rabbis do not drive on Shabbat.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that a Conservative rabbi was recently added to the state payroll becoming the first in her movement to benefit from a government salary.