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Rabbis Still Awaiting Pay Equity in Israel

October 25, 2012 By:
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Rabbi Miri Gold

Rabbi Miri Gold’s paycheck looks the same today as it did  six months ago, despite the Israeli attorney general’s decision in May stipulating that Gold and other Reform and Conservative rabbis in certain parts of the country must receive the same wages as Orthodox rabbis.

The government agreed to fund the rabbis after negotiations in response to a petition Gold filed in 2005 asking the state to grant her the same status as Orthodox rabbis, who are officially recognized and paid by the state. To date, the salary change only exists in principle — Gold said she has yet to see any additional money from the Israeli government. 

The agreement only applies to rabbis in regional councils — large rural communities — not cities — and Conservative and Reform rabbis still do not have authority over ceremonies, such as marriage, divorce or funerals.

Gold, the rabbi at Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel, was in town recently to tell her story, at the start of a cross country fund­raising tour and to speak at the  Association of Reform Zionists of America’s annual meeting in Newark, N.J.

The Detroit native made aliyah to Gezer with a group of North Americans in 1977. The first few years were dedicated to making the kibbutz operational, but as residents’ children started to reach Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, the community needed a religious leader. A young rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary led services and ceremonies. When he left, Gold began performing some of the religious functions as a lay person. In 1999, after attending rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, she became the third Reform rabbi ordained in Israel.

In 2005, Gold and the Israel Religious Action Center petitioned the state to fund the Reform community in Gezer just as it funds Orthodox communities. In May, the government agreed to fund 15 non-Orthodox rabbis in the regional council areas.

The decision stated that Reform and Conservative rabbis would receive their salaries from the Ministry of Culture and Sport rather than the Religious Services Ministry, which funds Orthodox rabbis. 

Gold said she receives 75 percent of her salary from the Reform movement in Israel and the remainder from international donations. 

Gold said she thinks Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, a member of the Likud Party, has balked at implementing the decision because she is sensitive to maintaining a coalition with the Orthodox, who strongly oppose the recognition of rabbis of other movements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also a member of Lik­ud, recently called for early elections, and some analysts have speculated that the leader could move away from right -wing and religious parties closer to the political center.

Gold said it’s too early to tell whether the elections could have any impact on the liberal  movements. “I would be pleasantly surprised if any government formed a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox,” Gold said.

The Orthodox are a powerful force in Israel and in the Knesset, where Netanyahu’s coalition includes groups such as the Shas Party. In September, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon that for Jews, “it’s preferable not to pray at all than to pray” with a Reform congregation. 

Gold said she does not work to convince the Orthodox of the validity of the Reform movement, but tries instead to reach out to the rest of the population. There are only a small number of Reform congregations in Israel. Gold leads Kehilat Birkat Shalom in Gezer, which draws its some 300 members from the kibbutz and other areas. 

Gold also is involved with a petition filed in 2007 that seeks the same state funding for Reform and Conservative rabbis in cities. “Israel is strengthened when people have a meaningful choice,” of where to worship, she said.

Gold’s visit here coincided with an incident in Jerusalem that further reflects the challenge for non-Orthodox women in Israel.

On the evening of Oct. 16, Anat Hoffman, the director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, was arrested at the Kotel after she put on a tallit and started to lead a women’s prayer service for Rosh Chodesh.

Calling the incident “outrageous,” Gold said: “I think it’s intolerable that in a democracy there is no freedom of religion,” especially surrounding a national monument such as the Western Wall.

When Gold made aliyah, she said, she thought “mistakenly that it would be much easier to be Jewish in Israel but obviously it faces its own challenges.”

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