Achieving religious reform.
(photo credit: courtesy IRAC)
The Israeli government’s May 29 decision to recognize Reform and Conservative
community leaders as rabbis and fund their salaries is both unprecedented and
significant. The announcement, which came in response to a 2005 petition by the
Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, classifies rabbis belonging
to either stream as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and declares that they
are to be financed by the state, receiving wages equal to those of their
Even though the ruling has its limitations, it has
both practical and symbolic importance. The decision contributes significantly
to the strengthening of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel and
constitutes a major step toward bringing unity to the Jewish people.
now, the decision applies only to Israel’s regional councils and farming
communities, and not to large metropolitan areas. The Reform movement does
however have a petition in court to give Reform rabbis in cities the same rights
of those in regional council areas. Furthermore, these Reform and Conservative
rabbis will have no authority over religious and halachic matters such as
marriage or divorce. Hence, their salaries will not be funded by the Religious
Services Ministry, but rather by the Ministry of Culture and
Nonetheless, the decision represents a major victory of principle
for the Reform and Conservative movements, and indeed for the unity of the
Jewish people. It opens a door toward full equality between all streams of
Judaism, which in turn bolsters ties between Jews in Israel and outside of it,
strengthening global Jewish peoplehood. Moreover, the legitimization in Israel
of other streams of Judaism aside from Orthodoxy offers Israelis a variety of
avenues in which to explore and build their Jewish identity.
RECOGNITION by the government gives well-deserved support and validation to the
dynamic Reform and Conservative community leaders and rabbis who have worked
tirelessly throughout their careers to build strong and vibrant Zionist and
Jewish communities throughout Israel.
The Jewish Agency, whose board of
governors is meeting in Jerusalem this month, has on its board representatives
of all of the major Jewish streams.
It has long served as the body
representing the Jewish world to the government of Israel on matters concerning
world Jewry, and has maintained its position for years regarding the importance
of recognizing and legitimizing the Reform and Conservative movements in
The organization has provided funding to several programs and
institutions connected to the Reform and Conservative streams. And in 2010, upon
the prime minister’s request, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky met with
Conservative and Reform representatives in Israel and abroad to discuss their
concerns about proposed legislation in the Knesset regarding conversion to
While there are those who argue that legitimizing these streams
is dangerous and could actually pose a risk to Jewish unity by changing the
standards for observance and conversion, it is hard to see how this argument
holds water given how much the monopoly of one stream of Judaism in Israel seems
to have alienated Jews in Israel and the Diaspora alike. Pluralism is actually
what is needed to encourage Jews around the world to make aliya, to encourage
Jewish unity and to strengthen Judaism among non-Orthodox Israelis.
Jewish Agency for Israel is the only arena where all the streams of Judaism and
Jewish organizations from around the world sit together at one table, and where
the positions and views of all community representatives are expressed and
influence issues facing the Jewish world and Israel. As such, we certainly
welcome the government’s latest decision and encourage further legislation that
bridges between the various streams of Judaism and contributes to Jewish
unity.The writer is the spokesperson to the foreign media at the Jewish
Agency for Israel.