(photo credit: AP)
A group of modern Orthodox rabbis that has earned the esteem of secular Israelis by offering free religious services such as weddings, counseling and High Holy Day prayers, is now being forced to start charging to fight financial demise.
Though not directly affected by the Bernard Madoff scandal, the Tzohar Rabbis, a group of about 600 religious Zionist, moderate-minded spiritual leaders, has seen nearly one-third of its NIS 6 million budget cut this year alone.
As a result, for the first time since its founding nearly a decade ago, Tzohar began last month to charge a symbolic NIS 180 to cover administrative costs for marriages - although Tzohar rabbis continue to volunteer to officiate at weddings.
The single largest cut was by Tzohar's biggest supporter, the Avi Chai Foundation, which was created by the late Zalman Bernstein, a businessman who embraced Orthodox Judaism late in life.
This year, Avi Chai cut NIS 700,000 from Tzohar's budget as part of a gradual phase-out of support, after nearly a decade of supporting the organization's activities almost single-handedly.
In addition, private donations have dropped from NIS 500,000 to just NIS 100,000, and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which supports Tzohar's work with new immigrants, has delayed a NIS 700,000 transfer.
In response, Tzohar has been making deep cuts in salaries, as well as instituting fees for some of the services it once offered for free.
This week, Tzohar announced that it was discontinuing the publication of its influential periodical, which deals with contemporary issues in Halacha.
Tzohar's executive director, Moshe Be'eri, said that additional projects were in danger, including plans for about 200 Yom Kippur prayer groups in secular communities across the nation.
"We at Tzohar believe that the first experience a secular Jew has with Judaism, whether it is a wedding, a Yom Kippur service or anything else, is a positive experience," said Be'eri.
"All of our rabbis are intimately familiar with both secular and Jewish culture and try to bridge the gap between the two. They have all served in the IDF, and many have at least a bachelor's degree from a university," he added.
Tzohar is one of several organizations that provide many of the same services that are supposed to be provided by the Chief Rabbinate.
Over 300 neighborhood, city and settlement rabbis are payrolled by the state to officiate at weddings, answer halachic questions, lead prayers and provide other rabbinic services. However, in many cases, these state-salaried rabbis are unable or unwilling to reach out to secular Israelis, either because they have no economic incentive or because they are culturally alienated from secular Jews.
Tzohar's success has been in recognizing the need for rabbis who can identify and answer the needs of secular Israelis.
"I believe we have improved the way the Chief Rabbinate operates by providing an option and introducing a little bit of competition," said Be'eri.