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Focus on Issues (part 2 of 2): Small in Number, Non-orthodox in Israel Battle for Recognition

September 10, 1996
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Israel’s minister of religious affairs recently attacked what he said was the undue influence of the Reform movement in Israel, given the small numbers of its adherents.

“It’s not feasible that there are less than 2,000 here and that they will influence the country as if there were 200,000 or 200 million Reform Jews here,” Eli Suissa, of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, was quoted as saying.

It is true that the headlines grabbed by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel in their fight for legal recognition belie the strength of their formal membership.

It is also true that Israeli politicians of all stripes routinely lecture non- Orthodox religious leaders in North America who complain of their second-class status in Israel. They tell them that if they want their movements to have parity with Orthodoxy, the official state religion, their followers should make aliyah and register to vote for their representatives in Israeli elections.

But Reform and Conservative champions inside and outside Israel say numbers have nothing to do with rights and that if they had legal status that gave them access to the free marketplace of ideas, they could boast much higher numbers of loyalists.

“Given the opportunity to operate on an equal footing and reach out to the public without demonization,” says Rabbi Uri Regev, non-Orthodox streams would flourish.

Until then, “to the extent we’re talking about Israel as a democracy,” he continues, “it is inconceivable” that the importance of religious freedoms would be measured by numbers of affiliates.

“Jews, of all people, should know better than to say liberties should be limited for small groups,” says Regev, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center of the [Reform] Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. He is also the most visible Israeli champion in the Supreme Court for the legal recognition of non-Orthodox movements.

The Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs dates back to the founding of the state and is endorsed by most Orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad.

But it is a system that has hampered the growth in Israel of the non-Orthodox streams.

The Conservative movement, called the Masorti movement in Israel, claims 20,000 members or affiliates, 50,000 program participants and 45 congregations and havurot nationwide. Of the 45, 20 have rabbis.

The Reform movement claims 5,000 official members and tens of thousands who are involved in their programs. There are 22 Reform congregations and 30 rabbis, about half of them born in Israel.

Reform and Conservative rabbis preside over certain religious life-cycle events, including circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings.

But their officiation at weddings, for instance, is not legally recognized in Israel. Israeli couples who choose this route must leave the country for marriage ceremonies, which then are recognized under international treaties.

If their synagogues get any public funding, it is a minute fraction of the amount that has sustained the Orthodox establishment and permitted it to flourish since the state’s founding. Formal, dues- paying, synagogue affiliation is not part of Israeli custom, so Orthodox synagogues typically rely on such public funding for their survival. Non-Orthodox synagogues are severely disadvantaged by its absence.

But the Reform and Conservative streams have secured some advances in recent years:

The Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College has received for the past three years an annual grant of $100,000 from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, while the movement itself has received $60,000 a year for the past two years from the same source.

The ministry awarded the Masorti movement $60,000 in 1994 and $100,000 last year. For several years, the Beit Midrash, the quasi-independent affiliate in Jerusalem of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has also received government funding.

The Masorti movement last year received for the first time some funding by a national interministerial commission for the construction of a synagogue in Beersheba.

A Supreme Court ruling secured the right for Conservative and Reform representatives to sit on local religious councils, which have a large impact on local religious institutions. Among other functions, they pay for neighborhood rabbis’ salaries and furnish maintenance and supplies for local, mostly Orthodox synagogues and mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths. Only two local municipalities fund Reform synagogues.

This court ruling, however, has been resisted in many cities and is being challenged by members of the new coalition government. Several deputy ministers or ministers made news recently when they vowed that no Reform members would be seated on the councils. The Jerusalem municipality has been fined $10,000 for failing to seat Reform and Conservative members.

The court also issued a ruling in November opening the way for the legal recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, but the governing coalition has pledged to bar this through legislation.

The two movements also won some recognition when the Shenhar Commission, appointed by the government to address the crisis in Jewish learning and identity, recommended that the curriculum in secular public schools include non-Orthodox Judaism. Funding for such programs already has been cut for budgetary reasons.

Although the number of Israelis who identify with non- Orthodox Judaism is small, this uneven legal status accorded the religious streams appears to go against the public grain.

Polls show that more than half of the Israeli public favors equal status for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and favors recognition of non-Orthodox marriages.

In fact, the legal monopoly over marriage enjoyed historically by the Orthodox is already showing signs of strain.

One survey by Hemdat, the Council for Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture, found that one of five Israeli couples married outside the Orthodox rabbinate in 1994. That includes those who rejected Orthodoxy, those who could not marry under Orthodox Jewish law and immigrants whose Jewish status was uncertain. Ten percent of these were married by Reform or Conservative rabbis.

The number of Reform weddings has grown from 200 two years ago to more than 500 this year.

Until recently, Reform and Conservative leaders had reason to be confident of further gains. For one, they were banking on the political capital of tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union whose Jewish status is questionable under Orthodox Jewish law. These immigrants clearly need alternatives to Orthodoxy in matters ranging from marriage to burial.

But these hopes were dashed this summer when Natan Sharansky, the leader of the new Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party, began to seek a special deal with the Chief Rabbinate for civil solutions for these immigrants, effectively cutting the non-Orthodox movements out of the equation.

At the same time, in an even more critical development, May’s elections saw a consolidation in the strength of the fervently religious parties and a commitment by the new government to curb any erosion of power by the Orthodox.

The mood grew bitter and divided over religious differences. Campaign rhetoric from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party included warnings that Reform Jews convert people by telephone.

Last month, the conflict intensified when Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron gave a d’var Torah that was interpreted by some as incitement to violence against Reform Jews. And more recently, there have been calls for the end of the “phenomenon” of Reform Judaism in Israel, while government funding to the non-Orthodox streams looks to be in jeopardy.

Nonetheless, Regev sees “light” on the horizon.

As evidence, he points to the recent outpouring of protest by non-Orthodox Israelis over efforts to close Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street to traffic on Shabbat and holidays.

He says the new effort by politicians to crack down on Reform will awaken people “who didn’t give much thought before” to the need to fight to preserve religious liberties and support “an alternative Jewish voice.”

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