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Hiddush, a trans-denominational organization aimed at promoting religious freedom in Israel, was launched at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Monday.
The new group, a partnership between Israeli Jews and World Jewry headed by Rabbi Uri Regev and American businessman and Jewish philanthropic and communal leader Stanley P. Gold, challenges the status quo of the religious power structure in Israel and aims to build up grassroots momentum for change.
The Monday press conference, during which Hiddush presented its staff, explained its rationale, launched its new Web site and released a summery of a statistical study it conducted, was held in the building where, on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion read Israel's Declaration of Independence.
Hiddush, which in Hebrew means innovation and renewal, aims to realize the words of the declaration, which states that "The State of Israelâ€¦ will uphold freedom of religion and conscience and ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion," said Regev.
Some of Hiddush's goals include instituting civil marriages as well as ensuring recognition for Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist marriages and conversions, and providing equal funding for non-Orthodox religious services, said Regev, CEO of Hiddush, in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"We will be mobilizing among opinion leaders and the grassroots, among business leaders and other segments of the community," he said, adding that both the Reform and Conservative movements have expressed their support for Hiddush.
"Jews the world over have a stake in this issue. We plan to continue to grow public support."
He spoke out against the social ills facing the country that in his opinion were caused by the religious involvement in the state, including inequality in education, employment and army service, discrimination against women, refusal of ultra-Orthodox schools to implement the legal requirement for teaching mathematics, English, sciences and civics and the limitations on use of public transportation.
Regev, who until recently served as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, admitted that in the current political climate it would be difficult to dismantle the Orthodox monopoly over religious services.
"Nevertheless, over the years we have succeeded in small victories, such as preventing a change in the definition of 'Who is a Jew?' The challenge we will [tackle] has value in itself even if we do not manage to bring change immediately.
"In the long run we cannot allow the present situation to continue," he continued. "A state cannot define itself as democratic and at the same time prevent a large portion of its citizens from getting married."
Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi, all government coalition members, are opposed to breaking the Orthodox monopoly over religious services. Even Israel Beiteinu, which represents many of the non-Jewish FSU immigrants who are unable to marry in Israel, is not advocating full-fledged civil marriage. Rather, the party supports a type of commitment ceremony (brit zugiut) that would be recognized by the state but would not be considered "marriage."
Gold, who is the Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, warned of the "weakening of the Israeli economy if a drastic shift in the Ultra-Orthodox school curriculum does not occur, and if a large-scale increase in their participation in the workforce doesn't take place."
According to Gold, who wrote from his home in Los Angles, "Today, Israel is an attractive place for investors, in large part due to its educated work force. The fact that a quarter of Jewish students in Israel study in the ultra-Orthodox school system threatens to destroy this advantage. In the ultra-Orthodox education system a large percentage of male students study mathematics on a very low level and they don't study English or science at all.
"This situation," Gold said, "threatens to reduce the Israeli economy within ten years to a third-world level." He emphasized that 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel study in yeshivas and do not work, supporting their families solely with government stipends.
Different studies have found that ultra-Orthodox men's avoidance of joining the Israeli job market costs Israel between NIS 5 to 15 billion annually. "But there is nothing in the Torah that prohibits a religious man from providing for his family with dignity," said Gold.
At the press conference the new organization also presented their Web site - hiddush.org, which exists in Hebrew and English versions.
Hiddush used the launch as a platform to present a survey they conducted to assess current sentiments of the Jewish population of Israel on matters of religion and state. The survey, which was conducted by Rafi Smith and Olga Paniel from Smith Research Institute during the months of June and July, canvassed the opinions of a sample group of 1,200 adult Jewish men and women.
Among the finding of the survey, whose details can be seen on the Hiddush Web site, were the following highlights: 83% support ensuring freedom of religion and conscience; 63% support equal state funding for all Jewish denominations; 84% oppose military service exemptions for Yeshiva students; 92% of secular Jews support abolishing the Orthodox monopoly on marriage; 80% support canceling or limiting gender-segregated Mehadrin bus lines; 62% support the operation of public transportation on Saturdays.
"This study clearly reveals strong support for a range of matters of religious freedom and equality among the general Israeli population. This suggests that mainstream Israelis, across the social and political spectrum, are open to fundamental change in the long-standing status quo agreements, which have granted monopoly powers to the ultra-Orthodox political parties and chief rabbinate. Israelis seek a more free and egalitarian society, in which all citizens receive more equal status, both in rights and duties," wrote Smith in his conclusion.