Nine months after Israeli court ruling, non-Orthodox rabbis still fighting for equal pay


TEL AVIV (JTA) – In a precedent-setting decision, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last May that a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold, should be paid a state salary, just like her Orthodox colleagues.

The Reform and Conservative movements hailed the decision as a step closer to full equality for non-Orthodox religious denominations.

But Gold, who works as a rabbi at Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, still has yet to see her first government paycheck.

The government says Gold has not fulfilled the criteria set by the state for non-Orthodox rabbis. Gold and her allies say the criteria are onerous and unfairly set different conditions for Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis.

In a bid to challenge the rules, Gold, another non-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, and the Conservative and Reform movements filed a new court petition last week.

“I can’t tell you how aggravating it is,” Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, told JTA. “We thought this was a victory, and then it started to be a rigmarole. It’s a real insult.”

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling determined that Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities could be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and receive wages equal to those granted by the state to Orthodox rabbis.

Several caveats, however, set special conditions for non-Orthodox clergy. The decision applied only to Israel’s regional councils — large districts of rural communities — but not Israeli cities. The rabbis would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry, which pays Orthodox rabbis. The non-Orthodox rabbis would not have religious legal authority over such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion.

Two months ago, the Ministry of Culture and Sport released its new criteria for non-Orthodox rabbis to collect state salaries. To be eligible, the rabbis must work full-time and be present at their congregation for at least 40 Sabbaths per year. Only rabbis of congregations with at least 250 members can receive full-time pay; those leading congregations of 50-250 members may receive half a salary even though they’d be required to work full-time.

By contrast, Orthodox rabbis do not need to work a certain number of hours, and there is no minimum size requirement for their congregations to qualify for salaries.

Aside from the obvious inequalities, the new rules put Gold in something of a Catch-22 in 2012: Unable to raise a full-time salary on her own last year, she worked only half-time. As a result, she won’t be paid at all for her work in 2012.

“Part of the reason our rabbis are part-time is that there isn’t enough funding,” Gold told JTA. “The idea is to have more of an even playing field. The more we can be available to people, the richer Jewish life will be in this country.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Or Doron, said non-Orthodox rabbis are paid according to “set criteria” and that the ministry uses the same pay scale as those for Orthodox rabbis. Just two non-Orthodox rabbis currently meet the criteria for state wages: Rabbis Yoav Ende of Kibbutz Hannaton and Shai Zarchi of Nigun Halev, a congregation in the town of Nahalal, near Haifa.

Doron said that in light of complaints submitted by the Reform and Conservative movements, the ministry is considering changing its criteria for 2013 to allow for part-time salaries. Reform and Conservative advocates say the change is coming too slowly; last week’s court petition is an attempt to push things along.

“It’s hard to move these things without the courts,” said Orly Erez-Likhovski, the lawyer who submitted the petition. Aside from Gold, the other rabbi named in the petition is Benjie Gruber, a Conservative rabbi from Kibbutz Yahel in southern Israel.

Gold says she sees one potential glimmer of hope: the makeup of the new Knesset.

The Yesh Atid party, which controls 19 seats, includes advocates for religious pluralism such as the liberal Jewish scholar Ruth Calderon. In her inaugural Knesset speech, Calderon called for equal state support for secular and pluralistic institutions on par with Orthodox ones. Gold hopes that means a wider push for the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis.

“Meaningful change can happen in the Knesset,” Gold said. “It would be healthier if some of these decisions were coming out of the government and we wouldn’t have to run to the court.”

Recommended from JTA