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Non-Orthodox Jews start making inroads in Israel

By Aron Heller

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 1:45 a.m. MDT

To avoid clashing with the strict state-run rabbinate, the financing will not be done directly from the Religious Affairs Ministry but rather channeled through the Ministry of Culture and Sports. And the 15 won't be able to serve in state capacities like the rabbinate or the military.

But with a precedent established, liberal streams are now aiming for greater breakthroughs.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads Israel's Reform movement, said that together with recent strides toward liberalizing the conversion process, the state funding marked the most significant development to date in breaking down the Orthodox monopoly.

"It is one victory out of many that are needed in order to reach full equality in Israel between the denominations," he said. "The important thing is that the Israeli government will not be able to say anymore that the non-Orthodox denominations do not deserve equal treatment."

The precedent was enough to spark outrage from the religious establishment and Orthodox political parties, which wield significant political power and often act as kingmakers in Israeli politics.

Yaakov Margi, the minister of religious affairs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, threatened to resign if forced to provide funding. Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni accused the legal system of attempting to "undermine the Jewish infrastructure of the state."

"All of a sudden, there is money for Reform and Conservative clowns for whom Judaism is a mockery," he said in parliament.

At a charged parliamentary meeting last week to discuss the new funding scheme, an angry Gafni had Kariv removed from the room when he tried to speak.

"I have no problem with heads of these communities getting funding for their cultural activities. My problem is with the state of Israel recognizing them as rabbis," Daniel Hershkowitz, an Orthodox Cabinet minister, told The Associated Press. "It has been clear for thousands of years how one becomes a rabbi. Just like the state does not decide who becomes a doctor or a lawyer, it shouldn't be deciding who becomes a rabbi."

Hershkowitz has demanded an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to voice his objections.

The development was made possible thanks to American-born Reform Rabbi Miri Gold, who petitioned the Supreme Court in 2005 and demanded equal financing. Gold, born and raised near Detroit, heads a congregation in Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. Like other members of the Reform movement, Gold also thinks the state shouldn't be financing religious institutions at all. But she wasn't ready to have her tax money go to the ultra-Orthodox while liberal rabbis like herself were barred.

"More and more Israelis are taking back their Jewish identity and realizing that Orthodoxy is not the answer," said Yizhar Hess, who heads the Israeli Conservative, or "Masorati," movement. "This is a shift that has yet to materialize in politics, where they have yet to realize that Israeli society is ready for a paradigm shift."

Liberal rabbis don't expect the change to happen overnight. "It's fine with me that there is more demand now for Orthodox rabbis," Kariv said. "Give me a generation and we'll change that."

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Follow Aron Heller at http://twitter.com/aronhellerap

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