- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — With the holy city of Jerusalem visible in the background, a man and woman standing side by side lead prayers for about 50 congregants who have come to welcome the Sabbath in this suburb’s Reform synagogue.

Their prayer book includes poetry. The women wear prayer shawls. The sermons call for social justice, and the songs are performed in a folksy manner while someone strums a guitar.

This scene, common in liberal synagogues across America, is an anomaly in Israel. Here, religious life is dominated by a strict ultra-Orthodox establishment that opposes the ordination of female rabbis, the alteration of traditional prayers and men and women worshipping together.

More liberal Jews now see a crack in that monopoly.

After a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Israel’s attorney general has announced that a limited group of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis will begin to receive government funding like some 2,000 of their Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox counterparts.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are celebrating the decision as a watershed.

While the two movements dominate American Jewish life, they are largely sidelined in Israel. The Orthodox religious establishment derides Reform and Conservative members as second-class Jews who ordain women and homosexuals and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages.

The generous government support for the Orthodox rabbis over the years has added to the marginalization.

Essence of Zionism

The debate boils down to the core of religious life in Israel and to the tenuous relationship between state and religion. It also touches on the essence of the Zionist vision of creating a state that can be both Jewish and democratic.

Although most Israelis are secular, Israel’s founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the country’s affairs. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices such as weddings, divorces and burials.

Their monopoly often has forced Israelis to choose between a secular lifestyle that often ignores Jewish tradition and a stringent religious one dictated by the Orthodox that is often out of sync with democracy and modernity. The status also has caused tensions with Jews in North America, most of whom identify as Reform or Conservative.

Israel grants citizenship to any Jew, including those recognized by the liberal streams. But once in Israel, those who do not meet the Orthodox standards of being Jewish can suffer. For example, they can be barred from getting married or having a proper Jewish burial. Instead, they must go overseas to marry, and special cemeteries are set up to bury non-Jews.

The liberal streams have long fought for formal recognition, with minimal success. They have established synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens. Together, the Reform and Conservative movements have about 100 congregations. A survey by the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute found that 8 percent of Israeli Jews identified as either Conservative or Reform.

Most Israelis, and certainly most state institutions, regarded them as somewhat alien offshoots of Judaism imported from North America and not meshed with how religion was practiced in Israel.

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