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Jewish Agency Restores Funding for Religious Streams

February 26, 2003
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The push for Jewish pluralism in Israel took one step forward and one step backward this week.

In the wake of protests by the liberal religious movements, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors voted Tuesday to restore a total of $305,000 for the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel that the agency’s Budget and Finance Committee cut last November.

Yet a day earlier, the newly emerging Likud government coalition — with the secular Shinui Party and National Religious Party among its partners — signaled it would not be making any major changes on such key issues as allowing civil marriages or public transportation on the Sabbath.

Still, Conservative and Reform leaders hailed the Jewish Agency decision to restore to its worldwide $320 million budget for fiscal 2003-2004 about 18 percent of the $4.26 million the liberal streams split in allocations.

At the same time, the Jewish Agency’s leadership pledged to help federations in North America, via their United Jewish Communities umbrella system, to raise an additional $197,000 over the next year for the liberal movements’ educational and religious activities in Israel.

This goes beyond what the agency’s Finance Committee sought last November.

Those budget moves came only after months of protests by North American liberal religious leaders to revive the so- called “affirmative action” funding of their Israeli programs.

For nearly two decades the agency has allocated about $5 million for Israeli religious institutions, with the liberal movements getting 40 percent each and the Orthodox 20 percent.

That formula was designed to make up for the Israeli Orthodox establishment’s refusal to aid liberal religious programs there.

Funding of the liberal movements “is a very serious thing to tamper with,” Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA/World Union, said in a phone interview from Israel on Tuesday.

That money “is the glue that solidifies the unity of American Jewry in its relationship to the federations and its relationship with the state of Israel.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, said the agency move reflects “the realization of the importance the streams play in North America and of pluralism in Israel.”

Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s chief executive officer and president, promised in a February meeting with the liberal leaders to ensure that the agency would “revisit” the affirmative action funding, and “this is the revisiting,” the agency’s spokesman in Jerusalem, Yehuda Weinraub, said.

Hoffman agreed, calling the vote to return the $305,000 to the liberal movements a “satisfactory” solution, while praising the pledge to find the remainder of the money through fund raising.

“It’s a compromise to advocate on behalf of the streams to make it up,” he said.

Not everyone greeted the agency decision warmly.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox movement’s Agudath Israel of America, maintained that support for the liberal streams “weakens us as a people.”

“From our perspective, the impact of American-style Jewish religious pluralism in Israel is not, in the end, going to be a healthy thing for the Jewish state,” Shafran said.

The American Jewish experience has been marked by intermarriage and assimilation, he said, “and we feel this is due in large part to the lowering in standards that seems to be part and parcel of the Reform and Conservative movements here.”

Even as the Jewish Agency boosted the liberal movements in Israel, the nascent governing coalition seemed unlikely to make any radical changes in the pluralism front.

On Monday, the new Likud coalition with Shinui and the NRP said it would at some point change the law exempting yeshiva students from serving in the army, but it also said it would not change the Orthodox ban on civil marriages or on public transportation on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s synagogue arm, said he was not surprised.

Yoffie said his chief concern focused on the NRP’s aim to increase Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, something the Reform movement opposes, but he did not expect any major shift in issues relating to the separation of synagogue and state.

Yoffie said he met with Shinui leader Yosef “Tommy” Lapid recently, and Lapid told him that Shinui was unlikely to make significant changes in Israel’s religious laws if it shares power with the NRP.

“The notion that the NRP and Shinui would agree on a revolution is ridiculous,” he said.

Still, Shinui can make an impact, he added. With Shinui ministers now heading the Interior Ministry, they can ease restrictions preventing non-Orthodox Jewish immigrants registering as citizens.

“The question is, will they stay on message and promote change where they can,” he said.

Hirsch also said it remained too early for liberal Jews to write the coalition off the pluralism front, since the government’s makeup could change in the next few years.

Meanwhile, Hirsch said Shinui’s very presence in the coalition will change the “rhetoric, culture and tone” of the pluralism debate, at least.

Shinui’s arrival “is going to have a significant influence on the progress of religious pluralism in Israel,” he said.

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