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Government Aid For Liberal Shuls Breaks Orthodox Israeli Monopoly

Modi’in, Israel — Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements have been allotted government land for synagogue construction, marking the first time in the Jewish state’s history that the Orthodox monopoly on public support for prayer facilities has been broken.

These movements are heralding the development as far more than a financial coup: They describe it as a small step toward their recognition as legitimate streams of Judaism in Israel.

“This claims moral ground for these movements, and moral ground is important for them. It is not just a matter of money, but a symbol of legitimacy for non-Orthodox Judaism,” said Bar-Ilan University sociologist Ephraim Tabory, who is researching the standing of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.

In Israel, there is no separation of religion and state comparable to what exists in the United States. The Chief Rabbinate is an arm of the government, and the state supports a network of religious institutions that includes seminaries and cultural organizations, as well as synagogues. Since the establishment of the state, Orthodox institutions have jealously guarded their status as the only state-funded Jewish religious organizations. Orthodox rabbis have insisted that only they should be eligible for state-salaried rabbinical positions.

In addition to funding for these purposes, the state sets aside at least one plot of land in every Jewish neighborhood for religious use. There, it funds the building of a synagogue that is turned over to a congregation — always an Orthodox one, until now.

The Reform and Conservative movements have succeeded, despite frequent resistance from local authorities, in establishing small networks of congregations in Israel in recent years, all funded privately. The two movements have some 79 congregations around the country — 29 Reform and 50 Conservative. This is the first time, however, that non-Orthodox congregations have secured public funding.

In December 2004, the lobbying arm of Reform Judaism, the Israel Religious Action Center, petitioned the Supreme Court — for the fourth time since 2001 — to rule that non-Orthodox congregations should also receive state assistance. It called for an end to the “discrimination in the allocation of funds for the construction of synagogues.”

For what it intended as a test case, the Reform action center chose to focus on the city of Modi’in, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Reform leaders view the city as a stronghold, with 250 paying member families there. Indeed, the city has been designated by the Jewish Agency as a target for emigration from the American Reform community. Also, as the city was founded in 1993 and many neighborhoods were built in the past three years, it was not like long-established cities where Orthodox synagogues already laid claim to the available funding. City officials have funds attainable from a special Housing Ministry budget given to the city to build synagogues in new neighborhoods. The funds have not yet been distributed.

After an initial hearing in May 2005, the municipality agreed to the court’s request that it freeze distribution of synagogue buildings until either a judgment was handed down on the petitioners’ claims or a satisfactory compromise solution was found.

In June 2006, after much encouragement from the Housing Ministry, the municipality agreed that two of the 10 state-built synagogues in the city should be given over to non-Orthodox congregations — one Reform and one Conservative. Satisfied with this arrangement, the petitioners dropped their case in March 2008.

“This is equality,” declared Iri Kassel, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, at the May opening of the building for Modi’in’s Congregation Yozma (“Initiative”).

“We broke a monopoly and brought about a development that is historic for the State of Israel,” the congregation’s rabbi, Kinneret Shiryon — Israel’s first female rabbi — told the Forward.

A month after her synagogue opened, another Reform congregation moved into a state-funded building in Kiryat Tivon near Haifa. Still other Reform communities, in Tzur Hadassah near Jerusalem and in Zichron Ya’akov, in the Carmel mountains south of Haifa, have begun preparing to do likewise.

The Conservative movement’s Israeli arm, known as the Masorti (“traditional”) movement, shares the Reform movement’s excitement. Mikie Goldstein, director of resource development, called the development “an important change which we expect to set a precedent.”

For the most part, the Orthodox establishment is trying to keep the development at a low profile and is assiduously avoiding any public discussion of the issue. A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate declined to comment. Condemnations have been limited to a local level. Modi’in’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliyahu Elharar, called it a “shameful and shocking phenomenon” in an interview with the private, Orthodox-run pro-settler radio station Arutz Sheva.

“The Chief Rabbinate does not want to be offensive to Reform, as this would upset secular Israelis, and if it does not object violently, it will upset the Orthodox, but it is still opposed,” said Hebrew University law professor Shimon Sheetrit, a former religious affairs minister. “Opposition among the Orthodox establishment is very strong. This kind of thing causes embarrassment, distress and concern. They want Orthodoxy to be the only recognized Judaism in Israel. And they want the synagogue that secular Jews don’t attend to be an Orthodox one, not a Reform or Conservative one.”

Well aware of this deep opposition, Conservative and Reform leaders are tempering their excitement with a sober sense of perspective. Even the most optimistic acknowledge that, because of the complex way that budgets work, the precedent is applicable only to new neighborhoods. It will do nothing, they say, to help them secure funding in established locales.

“There is still a long way to go in many areas, as almost all state money for religion still goes to the Orthodox, and while we believe in more separation between church and state, we feel if there is money going, we should get our share,” Goldstein said.

There is also nervousness about political changes that took hold last month. “Budgets for all synagogue building are now with the Ministry of Religious Services, which is controlled by Shas, which we think could prove a setback,” said Einat Hurvitz, head of the legal department at IRAC.


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