Emissary for non-Orthodox Israeli rabbis to visit Bay Areaby ben sales, jta
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In a precedent-setting decision, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last May that a Reform rabbi, Miri Gold, should be paid a state salary, just like her Orthodox colleagues.
The Reform and Conservative movements hailed the decision as a step closer to full equality for liberal religious denominations in the Jewish state.
But Gold, who works as a rabbi at Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, has yet to see her first government paycheck.
Gold, a native of Detroit who grew up in a Conservative congregation, will speak about her situation in two public talks during a 24-hour visit to the Bay Area next week: a March 13 evening talk in Berkeley and a March 14 breakfast talk in San Francisco.
Gold attended the Central Conference of American Rabbis conference in Long Beach this week, then lit out for 11 communities from British Columbia to California to Maryland. Her tour is being sponsored by ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.
In her talks, she is addressing the growing Reform movement in Israel (there are now 40 congregations) and the support it is getting, both from overseas and from the Israeli government (such as land allotments for synagogues and pre-fab buildings).
Gold was named by the Forward in 2010 as one of the five most influential rabbis in Israel. More than seven years ago, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism tapped her to be the face of its fight to win recognition for Reform and Conservative rabbis — a fight that is far from over.
The latest move occurred in early February when Gold, another non-Orthodox Israeli rabbi and the Conservative and Reform movements filed a new court petition challenging the rules set up to pay liberal rabbis.
“I can’t tell you how aggravating it is,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center. “We thought this was a victory, and then it started to be a rigmarole. It’s a real insult.”
Last year’s Supreme Court ruling determined that Reform, Conservative and other non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities could be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and receive wages equal to those granted by the state to Orthodox rabbis.
Several special conditions were set for non-Orthodox clergy:
• The decision applied only to Israel’s regional councils — large districts of rural communities — but not Israeli cities.
• The rabbis would be paid by the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Religious Affairs Ministry, which pays Orthodox rabbis.
• The non-Orthodox rabbis would not have religious legal authority over such matters as marriage, divorce and conversion.
Then, three months ago, the Ministry of Culture and Sport released its new criteria for non-Orthodox rabbis to collect state salaries. To be eligible, the rabbis must work full time and be present at their congregation for at least 40 Sabbaths per year. Only rabbis of congregations with at least 250 members can receive full-time pay; those leading congregations of 50 to 250 members may receive half a salary even though they are required to work fulltime.
By contrast, Orthodox rabbis do not need to work a certain number of hours, and there is no minimum size requirement for their congregations to qualify for salaries.
Aside from the obvious inequalities, the new rules put Gold in something of a Catch-22 last year: Unable to raise a full-time salary on her own in 2012, she worked only half time. As a result, she won’t be paid at all for her work in 2012.
“Part of the reason our rabbis are part-time is that there isn’t enough funding,” said Gold, the third woman to be ordained by Hebrew Union College as a Reform rabbi in Israel. “The idea is to have more of an even playing field. The more we can be available to people, the richer Jewish life will be in this country.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Or Doron, said non-Orthodox rabbis are paid according to “set criteria” and that the ministry uses the same pay scale as those for Orthodox rabbis. Just two non-Orthodox rabbis currently meet the criteria for state wages.
Doron said that in light of complaints submitted by the Reform and Conservative movements, the ministry is considering changing its criteria for 2013 to allow for part-time salaries. Reform and Conservative advocates say the change is coming too slowly; February’s court petition was an attempt to push things along.
Having petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court since 2005, Gold now sees a glimmer of hope: the possible makeup of the new Knesset, which must be put together this month. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is able to keep the haredi Orthodox parties out of his coalition, they will not wield the power over religious life they have had up to now.
For example, the Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in the Jan. 22 elections, includes advocates for religious pluralism such as the liberal Jewish scholar Ruth Calderon. In her inaugural Knesset speech, Calderon called for equal state support for secular and pluralistic institutions on par with Orthodox ones. Yesh Atid is one of the parties Netanyahu is courting to join his Likud-Beitenu bloc and its Hatnua partner.
Gold hopes this portends victory for the rights of non-Orthodox rabbis.
“Meaningful change can happen in the Knesset,” Gold said. “It would be healthier if some of these decisions were coming out of the government and we wouldn’t have to run to the court.”
J. staff contributed to this report.
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