Reform And Conservative Judaism In Israel: Non-Orthodox Jewish Groups Slowly Receive Recognition

For non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, a seven-year battle for recognition is over. But the larger struggle for acceptance continues.

On Tuesday (May 29), the State of Israel announced that it will pay the salaries of some Conservative and Reform rabbis, a practice the government has traditionally reserved exclusively for Orthodox rabbis.

The announcement is the first time Israel has officially recognized non-Orthodox Jewish movements. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:

The state’s answer comes in response to a petition that was made in 2005 by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, in the name of the Reform community at Kibbutz Gezer and Rabbi Miri Gold, who demanded equal financing of non-Orthodox religious services to those of the Orthodox via the municipal authority. The petitioners demanded the regional council be allowed to finance the salary of the community leader in the same way that hundreds of regional councils, neighborhoods and communities across the country do so for male Orthodox rabbis they employ.

The decision applies only to regional councils and farming communities rather than all Israeli cities, and funding for the rabbis’ salaries will come from the Culture and Sports Ministry and not the Religious Services Ministry as it does for Orthodox rabbis. Still, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is hailing it as a victory.

The announcement is only the latest step in an ongoing journey for recognition by non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, where Judaism is most often defined in terms of secular vs. Orthodox:

-Earlier in May, an international association of Conservative rabbis called on hotels in Israel to treat all Jewish denominations equally after Conservative groups were not allowed to use Torah scrolls if they did not follow Orthodox standards for prayer services, according to Ynet, an Israeli news source.

-Also in May, a female Reform rabbi was included in a religious council meeting in Mevasseret Zion, a town outside of Jerusalem, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.

-In January Conservative Jews held the first egalitarian prayer service in the synagogue of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature.

There are 60 established Conservative congregations in Israel, which account for 50,000 people, according to the Masorti Movement, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism. The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism says there are 30 Reform congregations in Israel.

By contrast, an estimated 850,000 Jews identify as Orthodox in Israel, with perhaps 700,000 of them falling into the category of ultra-Orthodox — though these numbers are up for debate.

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