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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Unlike the Dati-Leumi (National-Religious) or Haredi in Israel, the Reform and Conservative Movements do not have specific political parties advancing their agendas.101 Meretz, the far-left party, broadly advocates for religious freedom and separation of religion and state, agendas the Zionist Union (Labor + Tzipi Livni’s faction) and Yesh Atid (centrist) parties also generally support while other sympathetic parties do not actively advance such causes. In contrast, at this writing, the three Dati and Haredi parties hold 21 of the 120 Knesset seats, clearly advance a religion and state agenda, and are members of the current governing coalition.102 (See figure 19.)

Therefore, any influence or access the movements have been able to achieve have been through the judicial system. The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), regularly advances issues of equality through the courts and has successfully challenged the government and Rabbinate on a number of issues. Alongside IRAC’s judicial efforts, it employs lobbying efforts and a full-time staffer for Knesset affairs.

Relatedly, the Conservative Movement operates a watchdog group, Jewish Pluralism Watch (Al Mishmar HaKnesset), which serves to “monitor Israeli elected officials’ positions, statements and legislative initiatives and voting in regard to state and religion in Israel.”103

IRAC’s social activism, especially its constant challenging of the Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox influence, keeps them firmly in opposition to the current right-wing government. Moreover, the government, which controls budgetary allocations, has no political or religious interest in strengthening its opponents.

The Reform and Conservative Movements exert little influence on the municipal level. Each city and regional council maintains a Religious Council (moatza datit) tasked with oversight of religion-related operations on the local level. This includes the supervision and granting of kashrut certification (inspectors), supervision and attendance of mikvehs (ritual baths), burial attendants at cemeteries, and eruv inspectors (city boundaries for religious purposes).

The head of each committee, a salaried position, is appointed by agreement between the parties that comprise the coalition on the local level. The rest of the council members are volunteers: 45 percent are appointed by the parties according to their weight in the local municipality; 45 percent are appointed by the Religious Services Ministry; and 10 percent are appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of that municipality. When a list is generated and agreed upon, it is presented to the Religious Services Ministry for final approval.

However, for any number of reasons, the sides cannot agree on a list in most cases. If an agreement is not reached within a year, the ministry appoints its own council head and deputy, which act without a larger democratically appointed council. In some cases, the ministry and political parties may disagree on a list; in others, the ministry and Rabbinate seek to circumvent a democratically appointed oversight committee or bypass directives to include women on the councils. (The previous Religious Services Minister Ben Dahan – HaBayit HaYehudi – mandated that at least one woman be included on each council. Later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered that women constitute a full third of each council.)104

In practice, today, 70 percent of councils are appointed by the Religious Services Ministry, and therefore lack democratic representation and preclude the possibility that someone representing pluralistic Judaism could secure a seat on the council. Only a handful of actively Reform or Conservative individuals (appointments of Meretz) sit on the 30 percent of councils that are representative (including in Kfar Saba, Ra’anana, Ashdod and Emek Hefer).105

The movements attempted to gain influence through the councils during the 1980’s and 1990’s. However, according to Gilad Kariv and individuals interviewed who serve on councils (and asked not to be named), much of the funding allocated is already earmarked. This leaves only about 5 percent of the budget available for “Torah culture” activities, open to the influence of the members. In only a few cases were the Reform and Conservative members able to gain access to modest sums for pluralistic activities related to public holiday celebrations.

Because the Religious Affairs Ministry, religious parties, or municipal rabbis can simply bypass a representative council, should they want to silence voices opposed to their agenda, and given the limited influence one can have from within the councils, the Reform and Conservative Movements largely gave up on attempting to gain influence and access through this channel.

Conversely, Kariv notes that the Reform Movement is learning from the success of the Dati-Leumi movement and is working to build its influence and reach through a grassroots approach – focusing first on infrastructure and attaining budgets. According to Kariv, they realize that only through gaining greater public approval and identification will the movements be able to gain funding and public access commensurate with their actual scope and reach.

The Reform and Conservative Movements, however, have been successful, to an extent, in achieving a close level of cooperation with municipalities outside of the Rabbinate. In Tel Aviv, for example, the Reform Movement holds considerable influence and access in the city council and the municipality often sponsors public Reform Movement events. One can also look to Sha’ar HaNegev, a collection of 11 kibbutzim in the northern Negev region, which lists the local Reform rabbi on the official website alongside the Orthodox rabbi for those seeking religious services. In Holon, a Reform-affiliated school is being built and two Reform kindergartens already exist. According to Kariv, the mayor sees the positive effects (social and economic) of having a strong Reform presence, as can be seen in neighboring Tel Aviv, and thus is seeking to cooperate with the Movement.