Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to strengthen the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel has been widely applauded around the non-Orthodox Jewish world.
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But if the Israeli leader plans to make good on his word, that could end up costing him not only the crucial support of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, but also millions of shekels in state funding currently withheld from the non-Orthodox movements because of their unrecognized status under state religious law.
Orthodoxy is the only brand of Judaism currently recognized by religious law in Israel, which governs almost all issues of personal status. The Orthodox movement is, therefore, the recipient of almost all the billions of shekels allocated each year in the state budget to religious institutions and services. Only in recent years, after several drawn-out legal battles, have the Reform and Conservative movements been thrown a few crumbs.
According to the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, more than 7 percent of Israelis today see themselves as affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements. The Conservative movement (also known as Masorti) today has more than 75 congregations in Israel, while the Reform movement has 45. The non-Orthodox movements also run day-care centers and school programs in Israel, in addition to conducting life-cycle events – weddings, bar/bat-mitzvahs and funerals – for tens of thousands of Israelis each year. Almost all these activities are self-financed through fundraising efforts abroad and fees charged for services rendered in Israel.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, estimates that about $1 billion a year is allocated from the state budget to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox movements. A large part of that goes to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, religious schools that focus almost exclusively on Jewish studies.
“The fact that the non-Orthodox movements managed to double themselves in the past decade, despite the abuse they’ve taken from the establishment,” he says, “proves just how authentic their presence is in Israeli society and how huge the potential is. One decade of equal funding – and Israel will be a different place.”
But the non-Orthodox movements have a long way to go, as the following areas of disparity demonstrate:
Salaries for rabbis:
Following an eight-year legal battle, last year the government for the first time began paying salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis. But since only rabbis serving outlying regions of the country are eligible for such payment, there are currently just seven Reform rabbis on the state payroll. Unlike Reform rabbis, Conservative rabbis do not drive on Shabbat, and since most do not live in outlying areas, they do not meet the criteria for payment out of the state budget. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in the country, has been fighting to get rabbis in larger communities on the state payroll as well, but so far with little success. Several hundred Orthodox rabbis are currently on the state payroll.
Funding for synagogue and mikveh (ritual bath) construction:
Only in 2008 did the state first begin allocating funding for the construction of pre-fabricated synagogues for the non-Orthodox movements. Until then, funding was only available for the construction of Orthodox synagogues. Today, there are six Reform and two Conservative synagogues in Israel that have been built with state funding – compared with thousands of Orthodox synagogues. No state funding, however, has been made available for mikvehs run by the non-Orthodox movements, and their members are prohibited from using the many ritual baths operated by the Orthodox establishment around the country.
The state spends more than $10 million a year on Orthodox conversion programs, but barely a tiny fraction of that on conversion programs run by the Conservative and Reform movement – and that was only after the discrimination was challenged in court. Although graduates of the non-Orthodox programs are recognized as Jewish in Israel’s population registry, they are not able to marry in the country, as their conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate.
For adult converts required to undergo circumcision, the procedure can cost thousands of shekels. The government does make funding available, but only for graduates of Orthodox conversion programs. IRAC has an appeal pending in court to obtain funding for its converts as well.
The previous government set up a special “Jewish Identity Administration” in the Education Ministry aimed at bringing secular Jews closer to Judaism. So far, according to IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski, only Orthodox organizations have received funding from it. Requests submitted from non-profits affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, she said, have all gone unanswered.
What are the chances that Netanyahu will be able to deliver on his pledge to strengthen the Reform and Conservative movements? Shahar Ilan, the vice president of Hiddush, an organization that promotes religious tolerance in Israel, is not holding his breath. “Close to nil,” he says, noting that the prime minister has little leverage considering the current composition of his coalition. “If he couldn’t do anything when he had Yair Lapid in his government,” he says, referring to the head of the secularist Yesh Atid party, “then how can he be expected to do something when he has the ultra-Orthodox in his government?”
Besides that, advises Ilan, the non-Orthodox movements should be careful what they wish for. “Let’s say they do end up getting money from the government,” he notes. “It will be a lot harder for them to come out then and criticize the government because they’ll have a lot more at stake.”