A victory of principle

The recognition gives support to the dynamic Reform and Conservative community leaders and rabbis who have worked tirelessly to build vibrant Zionist and Jewish communities throughout Israel.

Achieving religious reform (photo credit: courtesy IRAC)
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 Orthodox counterparts.
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.
For 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 Sport.
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.
THE 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 Israel.
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 Judaism.
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.
The 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.