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Reform’s Rick Jacobs hails new openness in Israel to religious pluralism

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s religious services minister, made clear in an interview with JTA last week (see story) that he has some red lines when it comes to religious reform in Israel — particularly on civil marriage (he’s against) or anything that violates Jewish law.

Nevertheless, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, is hailing Bennett — with whom he has met several times — as a breath of fresh air compared to his haredi Orthodox predecessors.

“There’s a new openness and a new willingness to dialogue,” Jacobs told me in a meeting on Monday. “For the minister of religious affairs to have an honest and, frankly, open-ended dialogue with the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, that’s already ‘Shehechiyanu.’ That has not happened before.”

Jacobs cited several positive signs of change on issues relating to religious pluralism in Israel: a proposed civil union bill, talk of conversion reform, new accommodation for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, a growing sense even among the Orthodox that the Israeli Rabbinate has gone too far.

Jacobs also noted that a few days ago he spoke at a Knesset caucus on Israel-Diaspora relations opposite Rabbi David Stav, the relative moderate who lost in the recent race for Israeli chief rabbi.

Sharing a platform with Stav “would not have happened five years ago, 10 years ago,” Jacobs said. “There’s simply no doubt that there’s more discussion and debate, some of it very respectful.”

Jacobs attributed the changed atmosphere to the absence of haredi Orthodox parties in the governing coalition and the realization by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel cannot afford a rift over issues of religious freedom with Israel’s most stalwart allies, American Jews. (In a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu will address the Reform biennial next month in San Diego, either via video or in person.)

“The potential disaffection and the feeling of delegitimization and disrespect for North American Jews is not just sad, it’s not just uncomfortable,” Jacobs said, “it’s strategically untenable for the State of Israel.”

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