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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Public funding is allocated through various channels and arrangements and goes to pay for such things as community rabbis, and synagogues.

Government funding for non-Orthodox Jewish streams exists and is growing but is significantly less than for Orthodox ones. Total government funding for the Reform Movement stood at NIS 3.5 million in 2016-2017, while public funding for the Conservative Movement for the same period was around NIS 2 million. Additional government funding for non-Orthodox Jewish activities (outside of the movements) stood at another few millions of shekels.

RABBIS


Funding for public rabbis is anchored in Israeli law, including the Israeli Rabbinate Law of 1980.110 According to the Religious Services Ministry, there are three kinds of public rabbis: – city/municipal chief rabbis (rabanei arim); neighborhood rabbis (rabanei shchunot); and regional settlement rabbis (rabanei hityashvut). There are today 96 chief rabbis of cities, 126 neighborhood rabbis, and 290 regional rabbis. Since 2003, the neighborhood rabbis have begun a phasing out process, with no new rabbis hired according to this model. Instead of geographically bound “neighborhood” rabbis, the new model taking shape is one of “community rabbis” (rabanei kehilot). This is in addition to the two chief rabbis, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, who oversee all matters of religion in the public sphere.

According to Erez-Lahovsky of IRAC, the law does not explicitly state that such rabbis need be Orthodox. Therefore, in 2005, IRAC challenged the absence of publicly funded Reform or Conservative rabbis, which culminated in a landmark 2012 Supreme Court decision that there was no impediment to this, provided that several practical criteria could be met and verified. Criteria include showing that there is a local community desiring such services, conducting a minimum number of events (services, learning sessions, etc.) and having a minimum number of participants attend said events.111 Thus, in 2013, Rabbi Miri Gold, a Reform rabbi from the Gezer Regional Council, became the first publicly funded non-Orthodox community rabbi. Since then, nine more Reform and Conservative rabbis (eight Reform and two Conservative total) have met the criteria and received partial funding. To date, only regional councils or kibbutzim where there is no Orthodox presence have succeeded in meeting such criteria and receiving public funding. The movements have yet to succeed in gaining access to funding for rabbis in urban settings with mixed communities.
We note that in order to appease the Haredi parties, one of which controls the Religious Services Ministry (Shas), these positions are funded indirectly through the Culture and Sports Ministry and not directly by the Religious Services Ministry, as are the rest of the rabbis. This funding amounts to roughly NIS 1 million per year in all.

SYNAGOGUES


Synagogues in Israel can be eligible for partial funding by the Religious Services Ministry and receive support from the local municipalities. The municipalities appropriate public land for synagogue construction. Funding for synagogue construction and upkeep comes partly from the Religious Services Ministry, which distributes tens of millions of shekels yearly for “religious structures” (in 2016 – 2017, 70 million shekels in allocations were planned, which includes construction and maintenance of synagogues and mikvehs (ritual baths)). In practice, the ministry apportions most of the funding to lower income neighborhoods, and roughly 10 percent of the funding is distributed through an “exceptions committee” intended for parts of the public not considered mainstream. It is in this manner that the Reform and Conservative Movements can access public funding for synagogues. In municipal areas where the movements can prove demand, they have been able to access funding and land to construct on average one Reform synagogue a year and one new Conservative synagogue every three years. According to IRAC, the movements receive only a fraction of the amount they need to fully construct a synagogue (usually about NIS 200,000).

Kariv added that the Religious Affairs Ministry, although headed by Shas (a Haredi party), cooperates and allows this dynamic. He claims this is because otherwise, the ministry would become tied up in discrimination cases, and would thus not be able to construct any new structures. The Religious Services Ministry noted that it has no official policy of supporting a specific religious stream in this manner (Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform) and makes its funding decisions based on bottom-up demand on the local level. (Church and mosque funding is allocated to those religions by the Interior Ministry.)

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