IRAC's highs and lows

Center has expanded its scope to support not just Reform Movement but other minority groups in Israel.

ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
ANAT HOFFMAN at the Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), located in Jerusalem, is the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. Founded in 1987 with the goals of advancing pluralism in Israeli society and defending freedom of conscience, faith and religion, today it focuses on issues of religion and state.
Though the center’s original aim was to win recognition and gain equal government funding for Reform and Conservative Judaism, IRAC’s legal department has since become expert in the issue of fair distribution of government funds for other minority groups, not just Jewish ones.
Twenty-five years ago, people had hardly heard about the Reform Movement in Israel, and it had little if any influence – many considered it merely a movement that enabled Reform Anglos to feel more at home amid the local Orthodox hegemony. The founder of the center was Rabbi Uri Regev, who led it for 15 years before he was replaced by Anat Hoffman – previously a Jerusalem City Council member representing Meretz. Both Regev and Hoffman are Israeli-born, but the center’s actions largely follow American methods, including submitting court petitions – mostly to the High Court – while dealing with religious issues.
Last year, the center made a strategic decision to focus more on the legal aspects of issues concerning the Reform community in Israel, and less on social activities, as was done in the past, since the movement’s leaders believe this will better promote Reform’s goals. For instance, the center was very active in the protest camp of unemployed single mother Vicki Knafo nine years ago (including financial and logistic support) – something that didn’t happen with last summer’s protest camps.
One of the issues IRAC has been addressing more in recent years is the racist speech of state rabbis – so far without much success. A petition against Safed Chief Rabbi Shlomo Eliyahu, following his call not to rent houses to Arabs, has not succeeded in having him dismissed from his post.
IRAC also deals with cases of religious coercion, calling for freedom from religion as much as freedom of religion. Its legal work has extended well beyond advocating for the rights of Reform Jews in the country, and aims to serve the greater public on religion and state issues. The center has been heavily involved in the issue of gender segregation – on public buses, in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods, at the Western Wall (including the struggle of the Women of the Wall prayer group, of which Hoffman is the president) – as well as the interdiction against putting women’s pictures in public places in Jerusalem, and any cases of discrimination against halachically non-Jewish new immigrants and women.
In the case of segregation on buses, IRAC has brought the situation to the public’s attention, but has not managed to obtain a radical and clear change in the Transportation Ministry’s decision on the matter – i.e., that gender segregation is forbidden, but only in cases of coercion.
The conversion issue is the major topic on IRAC’s agenda – and it is also, admits Hoffman, one of the center’s biggest failures. Despite ongoing efforts to bring about a change in the legal status of weddings and divorces in the country, the situation that has existed since the creation of the state prevails: The state does not recognize Reform weddings or the capacity of Reform rabbis to perform weddings, and even at funerals Reform rabbis are not allowed to conduct religious ceremonies.
“Our rabbis have no standing in the rabbinical courts,” says Hoffman. “This is a serious failure. However, we are not giving in and will continue our struggle on this.”
Still, there have been victories for the center, such as state recognition of Reform conversions (only those done abroad) for registration at the Interior Ministry. The movement’s leaders believe this may one day lead to recognition of Reform conversions conducted here. At present, the conversion classes take place in Israel (most of them in Jerusalem), but the final conversion ceremony has to be done abroad.
Hoffman also points to Reform rabbis becoming eligible for state payment as a huge victory for the center and the Reform Movement in Israel as a whole.