Conservative JudaismIsrael

Equality at the trough

Last week there was big news for Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel: the state of Israel agreed to pay the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis serving as rabbis for communities in regional councils or kibbutzim. This is the culmination of a long court battle fought over whether Rabbi Miri Gold, a fellow board member of Rabbis for Human Rights, would be paid by the state, as she was selected as the rabbi for Kibbutz Gezer.

Israel’s attorney general last week notified the Supreme Court that the government would start paying her salary, although with a few caveats: the government isn’t actually paying her as a “rabbi,” they are paying her as a “community leader.” And they aren’t actually paying her a “salary,” they are providing “financial assistance.” And given that at the moment the ruling is limited to regional councils and kibbutzim it does not affect most non-Orthodox rabbis, who are serving in cities. Despite all that, the move has been hailed by Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews across Israel as a major step forward. Click here to read the article in Haaretz.

Not everyone thinks taking money from the state is a good idea. In an opinion piece in Haaretz titled “Selling their souls,” Anshel Pfeffer claims that “Jumping into the country’s polluted pool of religion and money is nothing for the Reform, Conservative movements to celebrate.”

Pfeffer says that by feeding at the public trough, the Reform and Conservative movements will inevitably become tainted and corrupted by the system. Better, Pfeffer claims, to refrain from taking state money and stay true to our values, which would favor a separation of church and state.

On a practical level, of course, we’ll never have true equality at the public feeding trough. There are 4,000 Orthodox rabbis on the public payroll. How many non-Orthodox rabbis are likely to make the cut? 15? 20?

But I think Pfeffer totally fails to understand Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. He claims that the problem Reform and Conservative have faced is not institutionalized discrimination, but “…a failure by both these movements to shed their elitist, Ashkenazi, Anglo, leftist and above all foreign image.” The truth is the movements have made great efforts to shed that image. The shul I go to, Moreshet Avraham, insists that Divrei Torah and announcements are all done in Hebrew, that Hebrew is the primary language, etc., even though we have more congregants who don’t understand Hebrew than who don’t understand English. The same is true for every non-Orthodox congregation I know of in Jerusalem. Sometimes I think we’d be better off if we had a few congregations which admitted we’re for “landesman” from America and ran in English. But the movements are dedicated to transforming themselves into local movements, and the non-Orthodox rabbinical schools in Israel make big efforts to recruit native Israelis.

Furthermore, when Pfeffer says “Thanks to membership dues and fundraising, the average Reform or Conservative synagogue still has more resources than a typical Sephardi place of worship,” Pfeffer demonstrates that he is completely out of touch with the realities of finance for non-Orthodox synagogues.

Most non-Orthodox synagogues have to have elaborate “overseas membership” drives, their rabbis have to spend weeks in the US raising money, etc., all because they receive no state funding, while the Orthodox shul down the block is heavily subsidized by the state. No one in Israel wants to pay dues to a synagogue because at the vast majority of synagogues, the Orthodox ones, you don’t have to pay dues. Furthermore, the dues that non-Orthodox shuls charge are very modest, nowhere near enough to cover their budgets.

Yes, in an ideal world, there would be separation of church and state, and we would all compete in the marketplace of religion and ideas on the basis of our vision for Judaism and our service to our communities. However, we know that such a separation of church and state is not going to happen anytime in the near future, if ever. Therefore, despite the dangers inherent with participating in a system where the government decides which rabbis get paid by the state, we have no choice but to take what we can get and support our communities and our vision for a Judaism that is inclusive and pluralistic, and that does not rely on forcing people to live up to an ever stricter and narrower vision of the Jewish tradition.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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