Achieving religious reform

How Miri Gold and 14 other Progressive and Conservative rabbis earned the right to state recognition and a salary.

Reform rabbi ordination 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Schechter Institute)
Reform rabbi ordination 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Schechter Institute)
Nine years of struggle and a large – and stubborn – campaign ended last week in a decision that some are calling revolutionary.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein ruled that Rabbi Miri Gold, who serves the Reform congregation at Kibbutz Gezer, deserves to be recognized as a rabbi, and thus has the right to benefit from public funds for her religious duties.
A sea of congratulations and media interest poured down on the US-born Gold following her victory. On the following day, she sounded happy but calm, acknowledging the scale of the achievement but realizing that the battle for a pluralistic society in Israel is still far from being won.
“I have always thought that things take a long time to change,” she told In Jerusalem while getting ready to attend the annual convention of the Reform Movement in Israel, which took place last Shabbat.
The attorney-general’s decision last week might soon change the country’s public religious scene. For the first time, the Reform Movement and, in the same framework, the Conservative movement, have gained official state recognition for some of their rabbis. If this recognition that the High Court of Justice and the attorney-general have imposed on the government becomes accepted by the public at large, there is no doubt that the status of the non-Orthodox in Israel will change dramatically.
For the moment, the achievement, though impressive, is limited. Reform and Conservative rabbis who serve in regional councils or on kibbutzim will receive their salaries from the state – which will, as of now, recognize them as rabbis. Some of the most critical issues, such as Reform and Conservative weddings and conversions, are still waiting in the wings to be resolved.
Behind the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, stand the largest Jewish communities overseas, which maintain their goal of obtaining recognition from the state and Israeli society for their religious choice.
IRAC, located on the campus of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, enjoys financial support from Reform Jewish communities and leaders in North America for exactly this kind of struggle.
The lack of state recognition for Reform rabbis and the weddings and conversions at which they officiate is not new. What brought about the change that resulted in last week’s ruling was the casual discovery of a legal loophole.
Rabbi and attorney Gilad Kariv and IRAC’s then-deputy leader Anat Hoffman found out almost 10 years ago that on kibbutzim (as well as in regional councils across the country), members could choose freely whoever they wanted as their rabbi (if they wanted a rabbi at all).
This was just a small lacuna in the law, and it allowed members of a kibbutz to decide that even a veterinarian could be their rabbi as long as the choosing process was democratically conducted, Kariv explained to the leadership of the local Reform Movement. The Reform leaders and IRAC saw this as a possible opportunity to break the powerful Orthodox opposition, and decided to act. By this time, there were some (fewer than 10) Reform rabbis living and serving on some kibbutzim, and after a short search, Gold, who was born in Detroit and made aliya some 30 years ago, seemed to be the perfect choice.
“Both a Reform rabbi and a woman in her 50s, married and mother of three – we couldn’t ask for a better representative,” recalls Hoffman.
Gold says she understood immediately what was at stake and the amount of courage, tenacity and patience this would require from her, but she accepted without any hesitation.
“Today, when we see the incredible wave of sympathy and support we receive from the Israeli public, not to mention the huge enthusiasm among our supporters abroad, it is clear that it was the best thing to do,” concludes Gold, adding that obviously the next target is getting Reform rabbis to head congregations all over the country, and eventually state recognition of Reform weddings and conversions.
According to a survey IRAC carried out last week, 50 percent of Israeli Jews are happy about the new decision, while 30%, who identify themselves as Orthodox or haredi (ultra-Orthodox), have expressed opposition.
“But – and that’s perhaps the most important finding – 15% of the Israelis asked answered that they just don’t care and don’t want to hear about anything connected with Jewish issues,” adds Hoffman. “And that’s a tragedy!”
The story of the Reform rabbis’ recognition sounds simple (“I wonder why we didn’t think of it earlier,” a member of the movement said at the convention last week), but it did require a tremendous amount of perseverance, as well as a thorough understanding of the Israeli political scene, Hoffman says.
After the decision was made to go forward with the recognition of Reform rabbis, IRAC decided to bring it to court since it was clear that the Religious Services Ministry would never accept the request.
An official petition was submitted to the High Court of Justice on September 5, 2005, asking the court to rule that Reform rabbis everywhere in the country be paid by the state, just as Orthodox rabbis are. The court’s initial reaction was that since at the time an interministerial committee was dealing with whether rabbis should receive their funds from the state or from local councils, the issue would simply be added to the committee’s agenda and decided there.
“But the committee didn’t even once put the payment of Reform rabbis on its agenda,” Hoffman recalls.
She admits that there were many moments of despair along the way, mostly in dealing with the labyrinth of the committee and its subcommittees, “which gave us the clear feeling that their only agenda was to waste time.”
According to Hoffman and her legal team at IRAC, led by attorney Orly Erez-Lahovski, about five years of discussions over budgetary issues went on in the committee without its reaching any conclusion or operative decision. Erez-Lahovski decided to go back to the court, which sent the reforms back to the same committee, still debating financial aspects of the conditions for the regional council rabbis’ fees.
But then Erez-Lahovski received a more precise proposal suggesting that Reform rabbis would receive salaries provided that the movement agreed they would be called “community leaders” and not “rabbis.” The immediate answer was “no,” and the topic was again a source of debate.
The issue at stake was not so much the salaries, but what the rabbis’ title would be. At the Religious Services Ministry, headed by MK Ya’acov Margi (Shas), the prospect of the state officially recognizing a Reform rabbi, through the ministry and under Shas’s term, was considered completely unacceptable. The committee suggested a new proposal, stating that the salaries would come through the Culture and Sport Ministry.
“We answered that that would be fine with us,” recalls Hoffman, “as long as our rabbis would be called rabbis. This was not a culture issue. These people are rabbis in our eyes.”
In fact, according to her and attorney Yaron Shavit, the chairman of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the rabbis’ title was the only point on which they were not going to compromise under any circumstances.
“We received a new proposal every few days,” says the Israeli-born Shavit, whose parents abandoned religious observance before he was born.
The 50-something father of three says that it was clear to those within the movement that this was a unique opportunity to advance the status of Reform rabbis, “and we were not going to pass it up.”
Back in the committee, the proposal was still facing the same obstacle. The salaries (70% of the earnings of an Orthodox rabbi) would come from the Religious Services Ministry budget but would be paid through the Culture and Sport Ministry.
However, Reform rabbis would be identified as “leaders of Reform communities” rather than as rabbis.
Hoffman points out that IRAC had proposed the title “rabbis of Reform communities” all along, so as not to cause confusion, “but they had to be called rabbis, and not leaders or presidents or anything like that.”
The state, however, through the Religious Services Ministry, was still reluctant to give the proposal the green light. In court, the judges, led at the time by Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch, began to sound impatient about the state’s hesitations. Judge Elyakim Rubinstein even declared at one of the sessions that he could not understand the state’s stubbornness on this matter. At that point, all sides finally agreed to accept the involvement of the Culture and Sport Ministry, and the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office immediately forwarded 15 budget allocations for 15 Reform rabbis of regional councils and kibbutzim to the Culture and Sport Ministry.
But the struggle over the title of “rabbi” continued, and Gold admits that she was almost ready to give up, assuming that the obstacle would never be surmounted.
“Clearly the court’s position here made things move,” says Shavit.
The court proposed, as a last resort, that the government turn the issue over to Weinstein.
“It was a very clever move,” says Shavit. “Weinstein understood, of course, that the judges were in fact hinting that they were close to a ruling, which would force the government to recognize Reform rabbis. It was better for the government to accept his suggestion than to be humiliated by a High Court ruling.”
And that is exactly what happened. The last obstacle – the rabbis’ title – was removed at the last moment before the court made its decision, and from this month on, Gold and 14 other Reform and Conservative rabbis (the Conservative Movement had joined the struggle in the meantime and reaped the benefits), will be fully recognized rabbis on state salaries, just like any of the country’s Orthodox rabbis.
Last Shabbat, at Kibbutz Shefayim, over 1,000 participants from across the country shared a particularly spirited atmosphere at the Reform Movement’s annual convention. IRAC celebrated its 25th anniversary at the event, which featured personal and often moving stories of Israelis who had obtained their rights through the involvement and support of the organization. Gold received a lengthy standing ovation.
Yet despite the festive atmosphere, all agree that for the Reform Movement and its Israeli members, the struggle to be equally recognized is far from over.
“The problem is that for too many Israelis who define themselves as secular, the Orthodox Jews are still the first and only reference [when it comes to Judaism],” says Gold with a certain bitterness. “My kibbutz is not a Reform one, like Lotan in the South, but I have nevertheless obtained there tremendous support and sympathy in my struggle. Yet the need to educate the Israeli public about who we are is still a huge endeavor ahead of us.”
She adds that the first and most important achievement of this decision is that “from now on, our members’ money will be used to fund our campaigns instead of paying rabbis’ salaries, and that will certainly help.”
These campaigns, she says, aim to familiarize more secular Israelis with the Reform Movement’s customs, and enlarge its communities.
“Usually people come to us when they have a bar mitzva and they don’t feel at ease in an Orthodox synagogue, and then they find out about us and many times they remain with us. That’s how it works.
But still, too many continue to believe that the only rabbis are those who look like rabbis, and those are the ones they don’t want to know anyhow,” says Gold.
Shavit says that this modest achievement can become a turning point for the Reform Movement in Israel. He himself discovered Reform Judaism when he was looking for a suitable synagogue for his son’s bar mitzva.
“My parents both came from religious families, but they both cut off their religious observance and I was born and grew up in a totally secular environment, as did my wife. We wanted a synagogue where we could sit together and share a precious moment side by side, and not separated by a divider or a curtain,” he says.
Shavit found his way to the Reform community in Mevaseret Zion, where he resides, and decided to remain a part of it even after the bar mitzva.
“Like many secular Jews, I was afraid that my parents, who renounced a religious lifestyle, wouldn’t feel comfortable with the Reform customs, such as a woman rabbi, but it turned out they were very happy about it, and they, too, got closer to Jewish life through the Reform synagogue,” he says.
He adds that like many of his relatives and friends who identify themselves as secular, he fears that ignorance of Jewish customs and traditions is a real threat to Jews’ collective identity.
“Through the Reform movement and synagogues and communities, even secular children and teenagers can learn about Grace After Meals or ritual handwashing and all these ancestral traditions. A decision not to observe doesn’t have to mean not to acknowledge,” he says.
“The indifference of the secular public is our highest preoccupation,” affirms Hoffman. “It’s like fighting the indifference of the silent majority in any issue that threatens democracy, human rights, citizens’ rights – it’s the same battle.”
Indeed, the next battle has already begun and will soon reach the critical decision point. Two months ago, IRAC submitted a petition to the High Court for the state to recognize two Reform rabbis who serve in Jerusalem – Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol Haneshama in Baka, and Ada Zavidov of Kehilat Har-El in Sha’arei Hessed. As neighborhood rabbis, the petition says, they should benefit from all the rights that the country’s Orthodox rabbis do, including a state salary.
“These two are at the forefront,” explains Hoffman, “and of course, once they are recognized, they will represent about 200 Reform rabbis active in Reform communities throughout the country, who will also become officially recognized by the state.”
For her, Shavit and Kariv, there is no doubt that the recognition of Gold is just the first step in their plan to have Reform recognized as one of the country’s religious streams and to break the Orthodox monopoly on Judaism.
“We can’t afford to remain silent on this matter,” says Shavit. “Otherwise we will wake up one morning to find out we are living in a ghetto, that we – the secular and those who find their way into the Reform movement and its institutions – have become a minority, and God forbid our children will simply leave the country we built for them.”