More Non-Orthodox Rabbis Seek State Recognition


Jerusalem — If anyone were rooting for Miri Gold, one of the 16 non-Orthodox rabbis the Israeli government recognized last week as a community rabbi of an outlying area, it was Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman.

Like Rabbi Gold, who was the plaintiff in the Israel Religious Action Center’s (IRAC’s) High Court petition demanding salaries for rabbis in outlying communities, Rabbi Kelman is petitioning the court for recognition of non-Orthodox neighborhood rabbis in towns and cities.

Rabbi Kelman’s petition, which IRAC filed less than two months ago, is yet another effort by Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel to receive the kind of state funding accorded to Orthodox rabbis, synagogues and other institutions.

Rabbis classified as “neighborhood” rabbis (usually rabbis of large congregations) receive salaries from the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In a compromise move to appease the Orthodox establishment, IRAC agreed that Rabbi Gold’s salary and that of the other non-Orthodox rabbis would come from another ministry.

Should funding become available, Reform and Conservative leaders say, it would relieve many of Israel’s roughly 250 Reform and Conservative rabbis of much of their fundraising tasks, and would greatly enable their movements to expand their reach and services.

Together, the Reform and Conservative movements only have about 100 congregations, despite the fact that most Israeli Jews consider themselves non-Orthodox.

Rabbi Kelman, the founding rabbi of Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the leading Reform synagogue in Jerusalem, has traveled to the States “two or three times a year” for most of the past 26 years to fundraise for his congregation.

“I’ve had to make numerous trips abroad to meet with foundations, federations and individuals, and it distracts from my primary responsibility as a rabbi,” said Rabbi Kelman, an engaging man whose office displays photos of Jewish leaders marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., on one wall and signed photos of “Star Trek”’s William Shatner and Patrick Stewart on another (“They’re my rabbis,” he says with a smile).

As it stands now, Rabbi Kelman told The Jewish Week, most of his salary and part of the shul’s budget is covered by the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel — Israel’s Reform movement. The rest comes from membership fees and money from North American donors.

The need for state funding has become more urgent, he said, because “a lot of the money from Israel’s Reform movement came from the Jewish Agency, and the agency and the movement are both having a very hard time financially. Add that to the world financial crisis, and it’s a terrible financial strain” for Israel’s non-Orthodox steams to keep their institutions running.”

Were additional money to become available, Rabbi Kelman said, “we would expand everything from our adult-ed to bar mitzvah and youth groups.”

In addition to the hours he devotes to his congregants, the rabbi said he is also the de facto neighborhood rabbi in Baka, which has a wide cross-section of residents.

“Many non-Orthodox Israelis seek a non-Orthodox rabbi,” Rabbi Kelman said. “People come to see me for counseling, for weddings, for funerals. We serve a large public, just like Orthodox rabbis do, but they get paid for it and I don’t. That’s discrimination.”

Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, believes the government’s decision to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis will hopefully mend some fences with diaspora Jewry.

In addition to the practical issues, the decision “contributes significantly” to the strengthening of the relationship between diaspora Jews and Israel, Sharansky said in a statement. It is “a bridge and … another step towards bringing unity to the Jewish People.”

Not everyone is as optimistic that the state’s decision — made by the attorney general, not the High Court or the Knesset — will be implemented or have any real effect.

In a Times of Israel op-ed, Ed Rettig, director of the Israel/ Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee, called non-Orthodox joy over the decision “tragically misplaced.”

“While certainly honorable [it] is no more than a bureaucratic determination. It sets no official precedent, as it would if made by a court; nor does it create a new law, as it would be enacted as legislation.”

Rettig also found it “puzzling” that the American Reform movement, which champions a separation between religion and state, “never communicated this concern with its Israeli sister movement.”

While the attorney general’s “indirect recognition” may help non-Orthodox institutions stop the dike from overflowing in the short term, “its long-term impact may well be as disastrous” for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel “as establishment has been for the Orthodox,” Rettig wrote.

Rabbi Kelman agreed that in an ideal Israel, “there would be a separation between religion and state.” But that in the meantime, non-Orthodox Israelis “should have the same rights” as the Orthodox to religious services.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said she also sees the glass at least half full.

“We are encouraged that after many years of the struggle for religious freedom in Israel and official Israeli government recognition of the Masorti and Reform movements, to finally see this sign step forward,” Rabbi Schonfeld said from New York.

The Gold decision “is a watershed because equal funding is the fundamental issue around which a variety of religious expressions will begin to flourish in Israel.”

That’s the hope of Brooklyn artist Shoshanna Cooper, who lived in Israel many years ago.

“It is a small but significant step in the direction toward a more inclusive Judaism in the Jewish state,” Cooper said. “It is ironic that it is easier for me to practice Judaism, according to my interpretation, in Brooklyn than it was when we lived in Jerusalem.”