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High court lets 15 marginalized rabbis collect government funds

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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.

The court ruling is far short of a full-fledged recognition. It classifies Reform and Conservative rabbis as "rabbis of non-Orthodox communities."

It applies to only 15 congregations in farming communities and outlying areas where they were the only rabbis and qualify as "community leaders" eligible for state funding. Still excluded are those operating in cities, where Orthodox rabbis are present.

Creative financing

To avoid clashing with the strict state-run rabbinate, the financing will not come directly from the Religious Affairs Ministry. Funding will be channeled through the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

But with a precedent established, liberal streams are aiming for greater breakthroughs.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform movement, said the state funding marked the most significant development to date in breaking down the Orthodox monopoly.

"It is one victory out of many that are needed in order to reach full equality in Israel between the denominations," he said.

"The important thing is that the Israeli government will not be able to say anymore that the non-Orthodox denominations do not deserve equal treatment."

The precedent was enough to spark outrage from the religious establishment and Orthodox political parties, which wield significant political power and often act as kingmakers in Israeli politics.

Yaakov Margi, the minister of religious affairs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, threatened to resign if forced to provide funding. Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni accused the legal system of attempting to "undermine the Jewish infrastructure of the state."

"All of a sudden, there is money for Reform and Conservative clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery," he said in parliament.

At a charged parliamentary meeting last week to discuss the new funding scheme, an angry Mr. Gafni had Mr. Kariv removed from the room when he tried to speak.

"I have no problem with heads of these communities getting funding for their cultural activities. My problem is with the state of Israel recognizing them as rabbis," said Daniel Hershkowitz, an Orthodox Cabinet minister.

"It has been clear for thousands of years how one becomes a rabbi. Just like the state does not decide who becomes a doctor or a lawyer, it shouldn't be deciding who becomes a rabbi."

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