Israel to Pay Religious Families to Host Secular Guests for Shabbat Dinner

Secular Jews and allies in the Reform Movement call the Religious Services Ministry's program a 'missionary plan' that works against Jewish pluralism

A typical Shabbat meal.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Religious Services Ministry intends to subsidize religious families hosting secular people for Shabbat meals and religious activities, sparking criticism that the government is improperly favoring one kind of Judaism.

These homes would receive funds to help pay expenses including rent, city tax (arnona) and electricity, and for activities linked to the program, called Jewish Homes. The plan, an initiative of the ministry’s Jewish Identity Administration, is targeting secular Jews between 18 and 50 who did not study at religious schools.

To be eligible, homes have to offer at least 15 hours a week of Jewish-identity activities in both afternoons and evenings. The hosts must be a legally married couple who have a “positive attitude” toward the Jewish religious tradition and the “national heritage of the Jewish people.”

Subsidized topics would include Jewish tradition and culture, Torah and Midrash studies, the place of the Land of Israel in Jewish identity, and three areas as interpreted by Judaism: family values and education, self-awareness, and couplehood and marriage. The topics would be discussed by the host families in settings like workshops, study groups and Shabbat and holiday meals, with each event lasting at least three hours.

Organization of the participating homes would be handled by nonprofit groups that would have to prove they had invested at least 100,000 shekels ($28,000) in Jewish-identity activities in the past. Sources familiar with the program complain that the tests for eligibility rule out non-Orthodox groups.

The ministry plans to allocate 15 percent of the money for the program to  nonprofit groups for their management services. A large part of the projects promoted by the Jewish Identity Administration, which was set up by Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett in the previous government, is being done through nonprofit groups affiliated with Bennett’s party.

The administration has a budget of 28 million shekels for 2017, a figure expected to grow to 33 million in 2018. Based on precedent, the administration could wind up receiving extra funding during any given year.

Ministry sources note that a budget for the subsidized-families plan has not yet been set.

This week the Reform Movement’s legal division sent a letter to the ministry demanding that the tests to choose nonprofit groups be dropped. One argument is that these tests could become a source of corruption because they blur the distinction between private and public activity. Nor can the financing be monitored properly, the Reform Movement says.

Regarding the requirement to maintain a “positive attitude” toward the Jewish religious tradition, attorney Riki Shapira-Rosenberg wrote that any discussion critical of the sources would be excluded from the tests, as would a range of views representing the multifaceted world of Jewish existence.

She also criticizes the attempt to recognize “activity in private homes, in the afternoon and evenings, which are usually family leisure times, as public activity” eligible for a subsidy. That opens the door to potential corruption given the ability to transfer money to groups with no proof they are doing anything worthy of public funding, she wrote.

Regarding the Reform Movement’s letter, the ministry said only that the program was at the early stage of fielding comments from the public and that the criticism begs questions about the complainants’ motives.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform Movement in Israel, said the tests proved that to the Religious Services Ministry, only Orthodox homes were considered genuine Jewish ones. He said the tests showed that even though the ministry and Chief Rabbinate talk about bringing hearts closer to Judaism, if anything they’re causing alienation.

The group the Secular Forum said the program proved once again the scorn with which the state holds the secular community, and how the state plans to reeducate that community. According to the forum, the notion that secular people should change their way of life is so unjust and ludicrous that it precludes any possibility of forging a shared existence based on mutual respect.

It said any such plan should be equally available to all, but the tests showed the program to be a “missionary plan” that would simply increase state funding of religious-Zionist groups at the expense of everyone else.