Reform Rabbi Sues Israel for State Salary, In Latest Bid To End Orthodox Monopoly

By Guy Leshem

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — In one of the strongest challenges ever to Orthodox religious dominance, an American-born Reform rabbi who serves a kibbutz of mostly American immigrants has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to demand a state salary as a municipal rabbi.

The suit, submitted to the court this week by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Reform movement’s Israeli branch, cites the fact that though hundreds of rabbis are on the government payroll representing communities, neighborhoods or cities, not one is from the Reform or Conservative movement.

The petitioner, Detroit-born Miri Gold, has served since 1999 as the chief rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. According to Reform movement officials, part of the reason that she was chosen as the public face for this legal battle is the vibrancy of her 70-member congregation and its formal role in the municipal structure of the kibbutz.

“It is not a matter of money,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “It is the basic right of the citizens of the State of Israel to be able to choose which spiritual religious authority to consult with over the most important issues in life.”

In recent years, the Reform movement has recorded several key legal victories in its fight to gain state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions. But Reform and Conservative leaders often have described such advances as relatively symbolic, arguing that the main barrier to their movements’ growth in Israel is an inability to access government funds. Under the current system, Orthodox rabbis receive a salary from the state — but the chief rabbinate and other Orthodox-controlled government agencies conspire to block any funding of Reform and Conservative congregations or pulpit rabbis.

Orthodox leaders in America and Israel frequently defend the Israeli government’s failure to fund the Reform and Conservative movements, arguing that liberal rabbis are pushing an American brand of Judaism that lacks grass-roots support in Israel. But polls in recent years have found that the Israeli public increasingly supports equal treatment on several major fronts.

One recent poll found that 63% of the public favored granting the Reform and Conservative movements equal legal status; the same percentage said that the Israeli government should begin recognizing Reform and Conservative marriages, just as it recognizes Orthodox ones. A 1998 poll commissioned by the New York-based Orthodox Union found that 45% of the population either preferred or was open to having Reform and Conservative rabbis officiate at their life-cycle events — though only about 5,000 families in Israel belong to Reform and Conservative synagogues.

Meir Spiegler, director of religious services in the Prime Minister’s Office, told the Forward that he was aware of the situation involving Gezer. However, he had not yet dealt with the matter. “The chief rabbinate is opposed across the board to the appointment of Reform rabbis,” he said.

Jonathan Rosenblum, an ultra-Orthodox spokesman in Israel, argued that a Reform victory would “ruin what is left” of the “Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”

“One of the basic elements in the Israeli Declaration of Liberty is that the state would be Jewish,” said Rosenblum, an American-born attorney and head of Am Echad, a non-profit group dedicated to advancing Orthodox viewpoints in the media. “If anyone could decide who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, we will lose the essence of the declaration.”

Although Rosenblum said that he is pro-democracy, he also stated that not all democracies are the same. “Each democracy relies on its cultural origins,” he said. “Democracy in the United States is one thing, and it is another in the Jewish state.”

Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of government and public affairs at the New York-based ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, also stressed the need to “preserve the unity of the Jewish people around standards.” He criticized the Reform movement for bringing its case just weeks after Israel dismantled 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. The Gaza pullout inflamed tensions between Israel’s secular majority and its Orthodox minority, which strongly opposed the move. “It’s frankly a very difficult moment in the State of Israel, with the disengagement, and I don’t think it’s an ideal time to bring up a divisive issue like this,” Zweibel said. “If this won’t lead to an internal civil war, then certainly it will create an uncivil atmosphere — and I don’t know that now is a good time for that.”

Leaders of the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, two of the most important Modern Orthodox-dominated organizations, said that they could not comment on the case as they were unfamiliar with it. In the past, leaders of the organizations said that they deferred to the judgment of the chief rabbinate on such issues, and voiced support for Israel’s refusal to recognize the Reform and Conservative movements.

In the latest legal fight, the Reform movement has secured the support of Peter Weiss, head of the Gezer Regional Council. At least 16 regional and community rabbis appear on the council’s Web site — but Gold, who receives a half-time salary from the Reform movement, is the only one not paid by the state.

“It goes without saying that the rabbi to be appointed to the position should be suited to the character of the community,” Weiss told Ha’aretz. “Rabbi Miri Gold is the natural candidate for this position.”

Gold was born Marilyn Rae Gold in 1949 in Detroit, and her early biography made her seem an unlikely candidate for rabbi of a Reform congregation in Israel. But in many ways, Gold, who was raised in an Orthodox home, has emerged as the poster girl of the Reform movement in Israel. Like the majority of Reform members in the country, she immigrated to Israel after being raised in an upper-middle-class home. In 1977 she came to Israel with the Labor Zionist youth group, Habonim-Dror, whose members settled in Kibbutz Gezer.

“I was raised by an Orthodox mother who made a career as a certified nurse after serving as an army officer,” Gold told the Forward. She added that “as a child, I received traditional Jewish values and practice, combined with liberal values of liberties and rights.”

Gold’s journey toward the Reform movement picked up speed when she was 21. That was when she decided she wanted to be called on to read the Torah at her local synagogue in Detroit. However, she was refused. At Kibbutz Gezer, Gold met people who had similar questions about religion. They searched for guidance together and found it in Levi Weiman-Kelman, a Reform rabbi who was one of the kibbutz members. Along with the rabbi, the group established Birkat Shalom — in English, a prayer for peace — to serve non-Orthodox Jews who live on the kibbutz. But Weiman-Kelman left for Jerusalem in the mid-1980s to establish a new congregation.

“We were left with no clue of how to keep our spiritual community life,” Gold said. “I felt that in order to do it, we must continue celebrating holidays and religious ceremonies together, so I started conducting them myself. The others helped me, and in a short period of time it became clear that that was the lifestyle we had always wanted.”

Gold started giving pre-bar and bat mitzvah lessons and organized learning groups for the members of the congregation. Eventually, in 1997, the congregation joined the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. According to Gold, this step grew out of the congregation’s desire to become a regional base, offering holiday and life-cycle events, Jewish studies and education for families in the surrounding area of Gezer, as well as addressing issues of religious pluralism. Today, Birkat Shalom is very much a regional community: Of the estimated 70 people who attend Sabbath services and 400 who attend on some of the holidays, about half come from the kibbutz itself; the remainder come from the surrounding area.

As for Gold, she decided to enroll in rabbinical school in 1993 after officiating at her youngest daughter’s bat mitzvah.

“After doing this for people from the community as well as within my family, they came to me and said that I must get my ordination,” Gold recalled. “Suddenly [at the age of 43] I had to go back to school, travel to Jerusalem on public transportation day and night, and raise three children without being a burden on the rest of my community members who had to pay for my tuition. But I knew I had to do it.”

In 1999 Gold graduated from the Jerusalem campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the only institute in Israel that grants Reform rabbinical ordination. She came back to Kibbutz Gezer to lead her congregation, which became one of the liveliest of its kind in Israel.

Now she is fighting for government recognition — and a government salary. “I have to [make do with a] half-time position funded by the movement,” Gold said. “The rest I try to collect for providing services in the area. I even have students in the regional jailhouse nearby.”

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