Here in Israel, we are finding ourselves celebrating once again. Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett has announced that his ministry is going to allow non-Orthodox community rabbis to receive salaries from the state. The Israel Religious Action Center has worked tirelessly for this day since we were first founded over 25 years ago, but what does it all mean?
Israel has over 4,000 state-funded Orthodox (all male) rabbis. Just over a year ago, the state finally agreed to fund several non-Orthodox rabbis (including Rabbi Miri Gold) in rural communities. A part of this story that I usually leave out, is that community rabbis in Israel are appointed by the state without the consent or input from the communities where the rabbis will be serving. Imagine if your home synagogue had its rabbis appointed by a government bureaucrat who did not know the particular needs of the community where the rabbis were sent. That has until now been the situation here in Israel.
The proposed change is geared towards fixing this problem. For years there have been complaints about the poor quality of religious services throughout the country, and even Orthodox Jews felt that the situation for community rabbis had to change. According to the new plan, communities will be given the power to pick who they want to serve them, and that includes communities that choose to appoint a Reform or Conservative rabbi.
It will be a great victory for all Israelis if this plan is implemented, but it will be a particular accomplishment for the Reform movement in Israel. For years the movement has concentrated on creating “facts on the ground,” encouraging new rabbis ordained in Israel to go out into underserved communities and provide religious options in spite of the fact that they receive very little in the way of financial support. We believed that if they would nurture and grow these communities, one day, the state would have to recognize the importance of their work. It seems that day might have come.
There are still many questions we need answered from Minister Bennett. When will this plan become reality? When will these new community appointed rabbis be given the same status as their Orthodox counterparts? We need to see the results of his words. The new government offers a rare opportunity to create real change for Israelis seeking religious options outside the Orthodox world, but we do not know how long this window will remain open. Please help us seize this opportunity.
Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center.