by Stewart Ain
Israel’s Reform and Conservative movements began calculating Tuesday how much money they would receive hours after Israel’s top court ordered the state to fund their conversion programs.
The government currently provides $410,000 to conversion preparatory programs run by the Orthodox. It provides no money for non-Orthodox programs, and in 2006 The Movement for Progressive Judaism, which handles Reform conversions, filed suit.
In its six-page decision, the court also directed the government to retroactively fund the Reform and Conservative conversion institutions for the past three years.
“The decision gives me goose bumps,” said Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s public and legal advocacy arm in Israel. “It’s sheer joy. It’s a recognition of one of our core programs.
It’s an historic day.”
“The government was ordered to stop discriminating against us,” she explained. “The word pluralism was written again and again in the six-page decision. It said pluralism is a principle that Israel should be following. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear this.”
“Our claim has been that there is more than one way to be Jewish,” Hoffman added. “Your readers think this is trivial, but in the Jewish state all religion is seen through the Orthodox stream. And for the purpose of state funding or state recognition, the only rabbis who count are Orthodox rabbis. This decision says that all rabbis who work on conversions will be getting state funding.”
In its decision, written by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, the court said: “All streams of conversion have the same purpose — the cultural and spiritual incorporation of Israeli citizens and residents into the society and community in Israel. ...
“We are of the opinion that the legal relevancies of the conversion procedure vis-à-vis the private citizen cannot justify distinction between groups that pursue activities that are essentially similar and which are aimed at attaining identical ends, the cultural and spiritual assimilation of Israeli citizens.”
“In accordance with the principle of freedom of religion and pluralism,” Beinisch added, the state must allow the different conversion institutions to “coexist.”
Should the state continue to fund these programs, the court said it must develop a mechanism that would ensure equal funding for all streams of Judaism.
In an e-mail interview, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America called the court ruling “unfortunate” and said it is “in the end, a meaningless decision to those of us who respect halacha.
“Religious authorities will still consider non-halachic conversions to have no religious standing,” he continued.
Tuesday’s decision was the second this week that undercut Orthodox hegemony in Israel, observed Rabbi Andrew Sacks, head of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement’s religious services and director of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.
“The court on Monday implied the rabbinic courts do not have the right to retroactively cancel a person’s conversion,” he said, explaining that the court gave the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem 90 days to show cause why it should be allowed to cancel a person’s conversion.
The court acted on the petitions of several rights groups after the Supreme Rabbinical Court in May 2008 relieved Rabbi Chaim Drukman, former head of the Israeli Conversions Court, of his duties and soon thereafter nullified all conversions he performed for the last 10 years.
The High Court of Justice asked the rabbinical court to explain why it believed it had the authority to annul the conversions, which cast doubt on the halachic [Jewish law] status of thousands of people.
Rabbi Sacks said it is unclear how much money the Reform and Conservative conversion programs would receive because the Ministry of Justice must decide the criteria for determining payment. It might be based upon the number of classroom hours taught or the number of students who completed the program.
Last year, 120 students completed the Conservative conversion program, 180 the Reform one and all were then converted, Rabbi Sacks said.
In 2008, the Joint Institute for Conversion completed training of 1,100 students and the Israel Defense Forces trained another 600 to 700. But Rabbi Sacks said that despite their training “the majority were not invited to appear before the rabbinical court” for the actual conversion.
“Once they graduate, the Chief Rabbinate has no interest in converting these people,” he said, adding that the Joint Institute was created to handle the 340,000 non-Jewish citizens of Israel who were primarily from the former Soviet Union.
Uri Regev, founding director of the Israel Religious Action Center, said the money the court has ordered the government to give the two movements “makes it possible for them to set up additional programs that were not feasible before because of a lack of funding.”
He called the court’s action a “great decision.”
Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement in Israel, said he viewed the ruling as “another stage that would get us toward achievements down the road.”
For instance, he said there are 3,000 rabbis who are hired by the government for different rabbinical positions in ministries, municipalities and the military. They are all paid by the government, and all are Orthodox. Hess said it would be a “big achievement” to get the government to hire non-Orthodox rabbis as well.
He said he would also like the government to fund the construction of non-Orthodox synagogues just as it does Orthodox synagogues.
“There have only been six non-Orthodox synagogues funded by the government in the last two years,” Hess said.
In addition, Hess said that for many years non-Orthodox rabbis have sought to have the marriages they perform in Israel recognized by the state.
“Right now 20 percent of couples who could marry with the Chief Rabbinate are not, opting to do it in other ways,” Hess said. “That’s a sign that society is more ready than before to deal with the question of identity in a pluralistic way. ... We have a window of opportunity now to change Israeli society, to have it become more pluralistic.”