Jewish Communities Without Rabbis Deserve State Funding Too

The government’s proposal to fund rabbis of non-Orthodox communities shows Israel is moving in the right direction, but it should take its liberal thinking one step further.

I remember my cautious optimism after the High Court announced last year that Israel could no longer only fund rabbis of Orthodox affiliation. While the decision to fund non-Orthodox rabbis was limited to those of rural communities and their funding was meant to come from the Culture and Sports Ministry rather than the Religious Services Ministry, I saw it as a step in the right direction. Sure, funding Orthodox rabbis under religious services and non-Orthodox rabbis under culture and sports is inherently offensive – for even those who claim Orthodox Judaism is the only true Judaism should at least regard non-Orthodox Judaism as its own religion – there is indeed something comforting in this approach: Israel wants to support culture and education, not measure its citizens' religiosity.

This past week, I was quite surprised to learn of another proposed reform that would make an even greater stride toward religious pluralism in Israel, when the Religious Services Ministry announced it would fund both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis in communities across the country, instead of directly funding only Orthodox rabbis.  Such a move shows that the Religious Services Ministry leadership recognizes the important services offered by leaders of Masorti (Conservative) and Reform communities to both their constituents and communities writ large.

I join Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti Movement, in applauding the hard work of non-Orthodox rabbis, with the backing of their respective movements, who have spent years paving the way for such a fundamental change in the Israeli government’s attitude. However, I also join Hess in recognizing this move for what it is: an important change in attitude and discourse that will only show its true impact once rules are set to govern the definition and delineation of “communities”. In the meantime, we religious leaders must continue to do our holy work without receiving government funding, while Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer must continue to wait for the Culture and Sports Ministry funding we expected her to receive.

While I am hopeful that the changes will indeed be implemented and that my future rabbinic colleagues will receive the same access to government funds that our Orthodox counterparts already receive, I propose the government takes one step further. The crucial change will not only be in the ability of non-Orthodox rabbis to receive funding, but in the transfer of funds from the rabbis themselves to the communities that employ them. In my mind, an even more important change would be to fund the communities whether or not they have a rabbi. I admit that this may sound strange coming from someone who is pursuing a career in the rabbinate. However, my experience has taught me that many different types of Jewish leaders can contribute to an enriching Jewish experience; not only rabbis.

Without question, I believe rabbis make important contributions to Jewish communities, not only in leading lifecycle events and prayer services, but also in teaching Jewish texts, providing spiritual counseling, and in being arbiters of Jewish law. But, while I believe that the level of learning and commitment required to be a rabbi deserves reverence, it would require an amount of hubris frowned upon by Jewish tradition to believe that only rabbis can successfully lead Jewish communities. To make such a statement would discount the important work of non-rabbinic professionals and lay leaders, let alone the communities where everyone contributes on a rotating basis. After all, if a community only rested on the strengths of one person, what would happen if its one strong leader left?

Whether the Israeli government should fund religious services at all is a complicated issue, but it is heartening to know that the state is moving in a direction of openness and pluralism when it comes to funding decisions. The state certainly has the right to set standards for what makes a community deserving of government funding, and I hope that it is clear that Masorti and Reform Judaism, among other streams, deserve to be seen as legitimate forms of religious expression.  I just hope that, whatever standards the government chooses to implement, the communities who meet those standards without the leadership of a rabbi will also qualify to receive financial assistance, as their work is no less holy.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
 

Tomer Appelbaum