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

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2005

An American-born Reform rabbi, in what The Forward (Sept. 23, 2005) calls “one of the strongest challenges ever to Orthodox religious dominance” in Israel, has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to demand a state salary as a municipal rabbi.  

The suit, submitted in September 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, mid-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. According to The Forward, “... 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.”  

Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, states: “It is not a matter of money. 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.”  

The Forward reports that, “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 have often 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.”  

Recent polls in Israel have found that the public increasingly supports equal treatment of Reform and Conservative Judaism. One recent poll found that 63 percent 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.  

Orthodox groups are fighting any official recognition of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. 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.” He declared: “One of the basic elements in the Israeli Declaration of Liberty is that the state would be Jewish. If anyone could decide who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, we will lose the essence of the declaration.”  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, states that, “The Chief rabbinate needs to be abolished or radically reorganized. Created by the British in the l920s as an instrument of colonial rule, it has long since outlived its usefulness. The current chief rabbis have both struggled with scandal ... I am not suggesting synagogue-state separation on the American model; such a system is impossible in Israel. But Israel would be well served by a decentralized, democratically elected religious bureaucracy in which rabbis were chosen on the basis of learning and personal piety — and not by backroom, political horse-trading.” (The Forward, July 29, 2005)

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