While large-scale reform of religious life in Israel, promised by Yesh Atid during the last government, failed to materialize, attempts to liberalize the religious services provided to the public were only partially successful.
ITIM, a religious services advisory and lobbying group, has said that despite the difficulties experienced in the last Knesset, and the likely obstacles to reform that will be presented by the next government, it will continue to advocate for liberalization, focusing on four issues in particular.
The first concern for the organization is the knotty issue of proving Jewish status. While there are some 330,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union, including descendants, who are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, there are tens of thousands of other immigrants from that region who claim to be Jewish but have difficulties proving so.
According to ITIM, some 4,500 people go through the process of proving they are Jewish every year, the majority of them doing so in order to marry through the Chief Rabbinate.
The process for proving Jewish status is conducted through the rabbinical courts system, but their authority for presiding over this process is not anchored in any law.
This means that there is also no oversight over the rabbinical courts on this matter.
Furthermore, rabbinical courts rely exclusively on the use of Soviet documentation to establish Jewish status in Israel, a method that has never been subject to legal or halachic scrutiny, says ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber.
Such documentation is frequently unavailable however, and there is also no recourse for anyone who claims to be Jewish but whose claim of Jewish status is denied by the rabbinical courts.
“The rabbinical judges are not doing their job; they are just rubber- stamping what investigators say, not asking if it is possible to prove someone’s Jewishness without documentation,” says Farber. “Jewish status has become a purely technocratic issue and not a substantive, halachic one.”
ITIM is proposing that instead of the Chief Rabbinate, it should be municipal chief rabbis in their capacity as marriage registrars who decide whether someone needs to clarify his Jewish status.
If Jewish status does require clarification through a rabbinical court, ITIM has suggested establishing a committee, under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and composed of experts on Jewish law and the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, to evaluate the claims.
“No one who understands the dynamics of the various Jewish diasporas has been involved in the determination of these halachic standards. The fact that so many Jews are subjected to humiliating investigations only adds insult to injury,” said Farber.
Another matter of concern that frequently appears on ITIM’s radar is that of the use of public mikvaot (ritual baths) by women who wish to use them without the presence of a mikve attendant.
It is a widespread practice for the attendants to be present in the room when women immerse in the mikve, to ensure that the process is done in accordance with Jewish law. Immersion needs to be performed naked, but many women are uncomfortable with immersing in the presence of an attendant for reasons of privacy, spiritual concentration and similar concerns.
This situation, ITIM says, constitutes a severe injury to freedom of religious practice and the right to privacy. Dozens of women have turned to the organization regarding this issue, it says.
ITIM wants regulations issued by the Religious Services Ministry to state explicitly that women may insist on not having a mikve attendant in the room when they immerse, and says it will work toward this goal during the next government.
ITIM is also seeking to resolve a problem that faces participants on Birthright tours, the groups of Jewish youth from the Diaspora who are brought to Israel by the Birthright organization for a free 10-day tour.
A significant number of Birthright participants, a large proportion of whom are not affiliated with a Jewish community and have never visited Israel before, try to lengthen their stays in Israel after the 10-day tours are finished but face bureaucratic difficulties posed by the Interior Ministry.
When signing up to join a Birthright trip, participants are in most cases not required to provide documentary evidence of their Jewish identity. But if they wish to extend their visas for a significantly longer period, the Interior Ministry asks tour participants to provide documentary proof that they are indeed Jewish, such as a letter from a community rabbi, the marriage certificate of their parents or something similar.
This often causes undue hassle and difficulty for such Birthright participants and exposes them to inconvenient bureaucracy at ministry branches, in a process that can make them feel that the State of Israel rejects their Jewish identity, precisely after a tour that is designed to strengthen their affiliation.
“The situation is mystifying,” says Farber. “On one hand, the state is dedicated to bringing young and, in many case, unaffiliated Jews to Israel. The country even invests millions of dollars in these programs.
And yet when these young people want to stay on in Israel, the Interior Ministry treats them worse than if they were undesirables.
“We should be embracing these young Jews and not insisting that their first independent encounter with the Israeli establishment is one of suspicion.”
The last issue Farber says requires regulation and oversight is that of the lessons on Jewish laws of family purity that all women are required to take when registering for marriage.
When a couple registers for marriage, the woman is required by the rabbinate to take classes on these laws before the couple’s marriage registration can be completed and authorized.
Some local rabbinates allow women to take these classes privately with an approved instructor, but some do not permit this, and women have to go to a rabbinate employee, paid for by the local religious council, for the lessons.
There are no regulations on qualifications for the instructors, how many lessons need to be given, where they should take place, and if they are to be conducted privately or in a group.
Some local religious councils insist on as many as eight lessons, some conduct the lessons in a one-on-one format and some in groups, some have the lessons at the offices of the local religious council and some at the homes of the instructors.
The classes often include discussions on matters of an intimate and private nature.
Although ITIM says it favors women learning about Jewish law pertaining to marriage, sex and family purity, the organization wants to have legislation passed that would give women the right to refuse to go to such classes.
“If someone says they want to have a private teacher, read about these issues by themselves, or not have them at all, then they should have the right,” said Farber.
Farber says that despite the opposition experienced during the last Knesset to religious services reform and the likely inclusion of haredi parties in the next government which will likely oppose any serious changes, he is still hopeful that change will be possible.
“Though it may be difficult to advance some of these issues in the coming Knesset, I remain optimistic that the government and the country are ready for meaningful changes in this realm. ITIM will continue to advocate in the Knesset for legislation that makes Israel more Jewish and more democratic.”