Women praying with Torah at Western Wall, October 24, 2014. .
(photo credit: PR)
The High Court of Justice told the state that it must produce fair and equal criteria for the funding of non-Orthodox religious congregations in city jurisdictions during a hearing on Monday.
In 2012, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel submitted a petition to the High Court demanding that non-Orthodox rabbis be allowed to apply and serve as state-paid neighborhood rabbis.
Neighborhood rabbis are appointed within the country’s large cities and are supposed to help the residents of a particular neighborhood with their religious needs and services. These positions are currently only available to rabbis who have ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, and are therefore by definition Orthodox.
But in May 2013, the Religious Services Ministry announced that it would no longer appoint neighborhood rabbis and would instead provide funds for congregations to pay the rabbis’ salaries, if they met the criteria set out by the ministry, ostensibly including Reform and Conservative communities.
The neighborhood rabbis who are currently serving will be allowed to continue in their jobs until they retire or reach the state pension age of 67.
A draft of the criteria was published recently by the ministry.
It dealt only with criteria for Orthodox rabbis, with the ministry seeking to leave responsibility for non-Orthodox congregations to the Culture and Sport Ministry since it already funds non-Orthodox rabbis serving in regional council jurisdictions.
In light of the ministry’s intention to abandon the model of neighborhood rabbis in favor of funding for congregations meeting the relevant criteria, High Court justices Miriam Naor, Noam Sohlberg, and Meni Mazuz requested on Monday that the appellants withdraw their petition, but also insisted that the state issue criteria for the funding of non-Orthodox congregations within 60 days.
It is likely, however, that the Culture and Sport Ministry will fund non-Orthodox communities under the new system and not the Religious Services Ministry, which refuses to take responsibility for Reform and Conservative religious services.
Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative Movement in Israel, welcomed the court’s insistence that the criteria be drawn up swiftly but spoke out against the position of the Religious Services Ministry.
“There wasn’t one trick the ministry didn’t use to try and postpone the hearing again and again, so as not to say what everyone already knows: the Religious Services Ministry is in fact the Orthodox Ministry,” Hess said.
He accused the ministry of trying to build a new framework for supporting religious services in cities that would deliberately exclude the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
“We hope that the Religious Services Ministry will not try, as it is accustomed, to transfer the money to us via the Culture Ministry, which is not the correct address for the Conservative and Reform movements, just like the Religious Service Ministry is not responsible for the Israeli soccer team,” Hess said.