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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The use of mikvehs (ritual baths) is closely related to the conversion issue. According to Jewish law, traditional and observant Jewish women must immerse themselves regularly. Furthermore, the Rabbinate requires all Jewish women to make use of the mikveh ahead of their wedding day.

For such common uses, Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism meet with little trouble, as the attendants cannot and do not inspect the halachic status of those who walk through the doors.

The issue becomes problematic vis-à-vis conversion ceremonies, as mikvehs are essential in them, for both men and women. Moreover, unlike regular mikveh use, the converting rabbis accompany males for the conversion immersion and trusted and knowledgeable females (rabbi’s wife, female mikveh attendant, etc.) accompany women, to ensure full compliance with Jewish law and ritual (in Orthodox conversion). Further, they are conducted during daytime hours, which means the mikveh facility must be specially opened for such an occasion as they are often closed during the day.132

Mikvehs, like kashrut supervision and burial, are essential functions and cornerstones of (observant) Jewish communities and are thus publicly funded in Israel. The funding is allocated by the Religious Services Ministry while the management and attendants are managed through each municipality’s religious council.

In February 2015, IRAC won a court case regarding the use of public mikvehs for Reform and Conservative conversions. As it stands, six public mikvehs are in use around the country for state-run conversion ceremonies. The Religious Services Ministry argued that the non-Orthodox movements could and already were using three mikvehs around the country for their conversions – Hanaton in the north (located on a Conservative kibbutz), Modiin in the center, and Omer in south.

The court ruled that any publicly funded mikveh used for state conversion ceremonies must also accommodate Reform or Conservative conversions. IRAC noted that they have not encountered problems at the six public mikvehs to which they turn, meaning the court order has been respected – so far.

As a reaction to this court decision, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers (United Torah Judaism) introduced a bill in early 2016 to circumvent it and give local religious authorities the discretion to ban individuals from using their facilities.133

A compromise was struck between the political parties and the non-Orthodox movements under which the Jewish Agency would construct four mikvehs solely for the use of the Reform and Conservative communities. The movements are, reportedly willing to accept such a compromise and in the meantime, are making use of the public mikvehs per court order. According to the compromise, which is not in the legislative language, the government is to transfer NIS 10 million to the Jewish Agency for this purpose, which, to date, has yet to be done.