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Non-Orthodox get slice of Israel budget

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 20 (JTA) — Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel are hailing an Education Ministry decision to allocate funds to their movements, saying it sets an important precedent in their campaign for recognition in Israel.

But Orthodox politicians said the ministry’s decision is a waste of public funds because the liberal movements are not short of cash and they only want the money as a sign of recognition.

Earlier this week, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that the Education Ministry had allocated about $500,000 to fund cultural and educational programs associated with the Reform and Conservative movements, and about $630,000 to fund secular Jewish activities.

Although the money is not considered a substantial amount, it marks the first time the government has specifically allocated money to the non-Orthodox movements.

Liberal movements have received some funding from various ministries in recent years, but never as part of a state budget.

Orthodox and fervently Orthodox cultural programs were cut by 38 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in this year’s budget, to $9.5 million and $14.6 million.

Many Orthodox politicians say the liberal streams do not deserve government funding because they make up less than 1 percent of Israel’s population.

The Education Ministry on Wednesday confirmed that the allocations had been made to the liberal movements. It added, however, that the decision was in fact made last October, but only received attention this week after being publicized in the media.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative movement, said the real significance is not in the fact that non-Orthodox movements have received government funds.

“The new phenomena here is that for the first time we have been officially included in the budget of the Ministry of Education, and they are calling us by name,” he said.

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a legislator from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, said the allocations were inappropriate.

“They are taking away money which is needed for very important things in the Ministry of Education and giving it away for political reasons,” he said.

“If they want recognition let them go to the Prime Minister’s Office and get a flag.”

According to an Education Ministry spokesman, the decision was in line with the findings of a public committee which recommended in 1994 that the government provide alternatives for Jewish education in public schools.

It also reflected the personal commitment of Yossi Sarid, education minister from the liberal Meretz Party, to open the door to the Conservative and Reform movements.

Indeed, Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said he was pleasantly surprised by the way the allocations were approved.

“In the past, any allocations we did get were like pulling teeth, since we were trying to fit our projects into criteria primarily created for Orthodox institutions,” he said. “This is a signal of a new era.”

The decision, he said, was a sign of greater sympathy for non-Orthodox movements under the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

He also cited the sympathetic approach of Rabbi Michael Melchior, the minister of Israeli society and world Jewish communities, and Justice Minister Yossi Beilin.

The Reform and Conservative movements will now submit project proposals to the Education Ministry to secure funding under the new budget. It is expected to take several months before the bureaucratic process is completed and funds are disbursed.

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