For years, it sounded like a bad joke: What do you call an out-of-work Reform or Conservative Jew in Israel? Rabbi.
Seven years ago, the Reform movement in Israel petitioned Israel’s attorney general, calling on the state to recognize and pay the salaries of rabbis from all streams of Judaism — and not just the 4,000 Orthodox rabbis drawing salaries from the government.
In Israel, rabbis provide religious services for communities through local councils and are paid through government funds. Until this week’s landmark ruling by the attorney general, non-Orthodox clergy were not welcome on the municipal committees and did not receive a state salary. Leaders of the non-Orthodox movements have long complained that such distinctions were discriminatory as well as alienating to the Israeli Jews looking for religious alternatives to the Orthodox rabbinate. American-Jewish leaders have argued for years that the state’s religious policies should reflect the diversity of world Jewry.
Under the attorney general’s consent, 15 non-Orthodox rabbis will be compensated through the Culture and Sports Ministry, as opposed to the Religious Services Ministry. In another compromise, the money will be considered “financial assistance,” as opposed to a salary paid by the local authorities.
Nevertheless, proponents of pluralism in Israel welcomed the news.
The move “advances pluralism and tightens the ties between Israel and the Jews of the world, particularly American Jews,” said Shelly Yacimovich, the Labor Party chair.
“I think we are alive in a historic moment,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of Reform Judaism’s Israel Religious Action Center. “[I]t is high time that the state recognized that its citizens have a diversity of religious needs that cannot be met only by Orthodox Judaism.”
Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer is to become the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive compensation under the new ruling. It’s one small step for a rabbi, one giant leap in the ongoing Israeli experiment in creating a vibrant Jewish democracy.