Rabbis Forced to Take Pay Cuts, Unpaid Leave as Coronavirus Hits Israel's non-Orthodox Movements

Heads of Reform and Conservative movements acknowledge ‘very challenging times’ as COVID-19 heavily impacts finances of non-state-funded organizations

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, left, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, in pre-social-distancing times.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, left, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, in pre-social-distancing times.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The coronavirus outbreak is forcing dramatic cost-cutting measures on the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel, including salary cuts and furloughing staffers.

As they are not officially recognized by the state, the non-Orthodox movements rely heavily on donations from overseas, as well as fees for services, to finance their local activities. By contrast, Orthodox synagogues and rabbis are financed almost entirely through the state budget.

In the past few weeks, quite a few congregational rabbis affiliated with the Conservative movement, as well as administrative staffers, have been placed on unpaid leave. Others have been asked to accept pay cuts. The Reform movement has thus far refrained from furloughing rabbis or administrative staff, but has introduced significant pay cuts for all employees, rabbis included.

All synagogues in Israel have been closed since March 25, under government order, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many Reform and Conservative congregations have moved their Shabbat and Passover holiday services online. When possible, life cycle events – a major source of revenue for Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel – are being postponed.

“We saw that the coronavirus crisis is not disappearing within a week, so we had no choice,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel. He would not provide exact figures, but said a “significant number” of employees had either been put on unpaid leave or had agreed to salary cuts.

“This happens at a terrible time because now, more than ever, people are in need of spiritual guidance,” he said.

The Conservative movement runs 80 congregations in Israel and has 30 rabbis employed in its synagogues.

Among those on unpaid leave right now is Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, the spiritual leader of Rehovot’s Adat Shalom-Emanuel – one of the oldest Conservative congregations in Israel. “It wasn’t the congregation’s idea: I volunteered to do this, and I know that as soon as they can, they will take me back,” he said.

Goldstein, who also serves as president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, said he continues to pray with his congregation – via Zoom video conferencing – but has transferred all his teaching and organizational responsibilities to members of the congregation and its board.

“I have to make sure everything is working well, because I want to come back and they want me back,” he said.

Like others similarly affected by the cutbacks, Goldstein is initially taking 30 days’ unpaid leave, but understands it will probably be longer. “I hope I’ll be back in two to three months, but who knows?” he said.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who serves as director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, also volunteered to go on unpaid leave.

“I fully realize that the income we expected is likely to be significantly impaired, and if we don’t make sacrifices now we’ll be worse down the line,” he said.

Hardest hit among the non-Orthodox rabbis, Sacks noted, are those who rely on life cycle ceremonies for their livelihood. “I personally know of several rabbis here who are now looking for employment in North America,” he said.

According to Sacks, the Conservative movement in the United States has set up a special fund to help rabbis in Israel who are unable to pay their rent or mortgage because of coronavirus-related loss of income.

Meanwhile, the Reform movement in Israel has opted to keep all its employees on the payroll but to introduce differential pay cuts of up to 20 percent in response to revenue losses associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We still need our employees because much of our activity, including bar mitzvah classes and conversion classes, has moved online,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel. The pay cuts will be in effect for the next two months and then reevaluated.

The Reform movement runs 52 congregations and regional initiatives in Israel, and employs 50 congregational and regional rabbis.

“It is clear to us that when we emerge from this, our employees will have to work doubly hard because of all the events that have had to be postponed – and that’s part of the reason we’re making such an effort to hold onto everyone,” Kariv said. “We do understand, though, that we are facing very challenging times.”

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