Sebastian Scheiner, Associated Press
MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — With the holy city of Jerusalem visible in the background, a man and woman standing side-by-side lead prayers for about 50 congregants who have come to welcome the Sabbath in this suburb's Reform synagogue.
Their prayer book includes poetry, the women wear prayer shawls, the sermons call for social justice and the songs are performed in a folksy manner to the tune of a live guitar.
This scene, common in liberal synagogues across America, is an anomaly in Israel, where religious life is dominated by a strict ultra-Orthodox establishment that sees such gender-mixing, ordaining of female rabbis and alterations to the traditional prayers as anathema to their way of life and resists any inroads by the more liberal streams of Judaism.
But more liberal Jews now see a crack in that monopoly.
Following a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Israel's attorney general recently announced that a limited group of 15 non-Orthodox rabbis will begin to receive government funding like some 2,000 of their Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox counterparts.
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are celebrating the decision as a watershed. While the two movements dominate American Jewish life, they are largely sidelined in Israel, where they are derided by the Orthodox religious establishment as second-class Jews who ordain women and gays and are overly inclusive toward converts and interfaith marriages. The generous government support for the Orthodox rabbis over the years has added to the marginalization.
The debate boils down to the core of religious life in Israel, and the tenuous relationship between state and religion. It also touches on the essence of the Zionist vision of creating a state that can be both Jewish and democratic.
While most Israelis are secular, Israel's founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the country's affairs. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis strictly govern Jewish practices such as weddings, divorces and burials.
Their monopoly has often forced Israelis to choose between a secular lifestyle that often ignores Jewish tradition and a stringent religious one dictated by the Orthodox that is often out of sync with democracy and modernity. The current status has also caused tensions with Jews in North America, most of whom identify as Reform or Conservative.
Israel grants citizenship to any Jew, including those recognized by the liberal streams. But once in Israel, those who do not meet the Orthodox standards of being Jewish can suffer. For example, they can be barred from getting married or having a proper Jewish burial. Instead, they must go overseas to marry, and special cemeteries are set up to bury non-Jews.
The liberal streams have long fought for formal recognition, with minimal success. They've established synagogues, youth movements, schools and kindergartens. Together, the Reform and Conservative movements have about 100 congregations. A recent survey by the Guttman Center at the Israel Democracy Institute found that 8 percent of Israeli Jews identified as either Conservative or Reform.
But most Israelis, and certainly state institutions, regarded them as a somewhat alien offshoot of Judaism imported from North America and not meshed with how religion was practiced in Israel.
The new decision is far short of a full-throated recognition. The court ruling for the first time classifies Reform and Conservative rabbis as "rabbis of non-Orthodox communities." But it applies only to 15 heading congregations in farming communities and outlying areas where they were the only rabbis - so they qualified as "community leaders" eligible for state funding. Still excluded are those operating in cities, where Orthodox rabbis are present.
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