TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israel’s plans to move ahead with the funding of non-Orthodox rabbis appeared to be a landmark achievement for Reform and Conservative leaders, who have long chafed at their second-class treatment by the Israeli government.
But even as they welcomed last week’s news that the Ministry of Religious Services was revamping its policies to permit non-Orthodox rabbis to receive government-funded salaries, Reform and Conservative leaders were cautious in their optimism — and perhaps with good reason.
Last year, Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from the rural Kibbutz Gezer, won a Supreme Court case entitling her to a state salary. A year later, she has yet to see her first paycheck.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who leads a 300-family Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. “We’re a long way from it happening. I’m certainly not going to put in additional spending money yet.”
The ministry’s intentions were made public on Thursday in the response by the state’s attorney to a Supreme Court petition filed in January by Conservative and Reform leaders. The petition accused the government of discrimination for funding only Orthodox rabbis in city neighborhoods.
“The intention here is to create criteria that will set appropriate standards for funding communal rabbis without asking which denomination the relevant congregation belongs to,” the response said.
According to the state’s attorney, the ministry intends within six months to reform the current system, which grants the Orthodox a monopoly over state-funded rabbinic posts. In Jerusalem, all 157 state-appointed neighborhood rabbis are Orthodox.
Instead, the ministry would fund any city congregational rabbi — Orthodox or not — should the congregation meet certain yet-be-defined criteria.
But the leaders of Israel’s non-Orthodox movements fear a repeat of what happened with Gold, where criteria were established that made it nearly impossible for her to receive a state salary as the Supreme Court intended.
“The big question is if this will be implemented in a way that’s really equal,” said Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Conservative movement. “It’s too early to say what the criteria will be, when they will come up or whether they will be equal.”
The Religious Services Ministry offered no information about the criteria being formulated, or even when the standards would be decided.
“Now I can’t tell you anything about the criteria,” said Idit Druyan, spokeswoman for Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan. “I have no schedule.”
The responsibility for implementing the policy change lies with Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Since taking office, Bennett has shown a penchant for effecting change quickly, enacting a trio of religious reforms two weeks ago and pushing a bill to change elections for chief rabbi.
Those reforms were more about process than substance. This change could threaten an anchor of Orthodoxy’s dominance of Jewish institutions in Israel — a move that could upset Bennett’s Modern Orthodox base and rally the haredi Orthodox opposition.
For now, however, Reform and Conservative leaders remain hopeful that change is on the way — even if it’s a long way off.
“We just have to keep up the vigil,” Gold said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to give up on this.”