In April of this year, a few weeks after the first round of what might be the most prolonged election season of my lifetime, I and other non-Orthodox rabbis received an incredible piece of news: the Ministry of Culture and Sport was going to begin accepting applications for non-Orthodox Jewish communities to receive government support. This did not mean that I suddenly had the opportunity to officially become the “Chief Conservative Rabbi” of my town of Mazkeret Batya (a title I was jocularly given by one of the leaders of the religious establishment here), and it did not mean that I would be offered anything close to a living wage by the government of Israel for the work that I do. But it did mean that our taxes would go to supporting religious services from a more pluralistic spiritual leadership.
The first criterion for receiving government support: proving that 40 different households are members of your community. Because our community runs on a non-dues, non-membership model (instead encouraging voluntary donations both for general support and for services), we had to turn to our community– those who pray with us, those who learn with us, those who come to our cultural activities, and those who support my general rabbinic work. The response was overwhelming: as of May of this year, 55 families asked to be counted as members (and made financial contributions to match). That number has risen to 75 in the months that have passed.
My community was quite excited when we submitted our request for state support. Against all odds, our little community of six families in 2015 has begun to really fulfill our pluralist mission, and we are excited for the opportunities that the future holds. However, government support was not to be. It turns out that with two election seasons in five months and no government, we will not be receiving an answer any time soon.
While we would have certainly enjoyed some extra financial support for our communal activities, with the help of local and foreign support, we are not slowing down. In fact, we are learning from the example of so many other aspects of the complicated relationship that is state and religion in Israel.
In 2018, some 29,000 Jewish couples got married outside of the Chief Rabbinate, despite the fact that the Chief Rabbinate is the only body legally authorized to perform the wedding of a Jew in Israel. Some people are left with no choice, because the Rabbinate does not recognize their conversions, or because the groom has the last name Cohen and the bride underwent a supposedly nominal conversion because she could not prove her mother’s Judaism. Others make an ideological choice, opting for a wedding where women are allowed to make blessings or where the bride and groom make a conditional betrothal that prevents a woman from becoming a chained wife. The government has passed more restrictive laws trying to protect the Rabbinate’s monopoly, but the people have continued to vote with their rings, refusing to wait for a change in policy.
Just a week ago, Israel experienced a sudden and dramatic example of the people refusing to wait for the national government: the city of Tel Aviv began running public transportation on Shabbat, including to five of its suburbs. The people of Tel Aviv and its environs responded enthusiastically and the demand for the buses outweigh the supply. The move has been decried by the religious establishment, while simultaneously applauded by many religious Israelis who have no intentions to ride the buses themselves but support the rights of individuals to make more independent choices of how they spend their weekly day of rest. Time will tell if Tel Aviv’s local decision becomes a national trend.
We are seeing more and more that the status quo of religion and state in Israel is becoming less fitting to the needs of the society. In fact, the primary reason that a government was not formed after April’s elections was over a disagreement regarding conscription for the ultra-Orthodox. It is clear however, that the changing status quo is not about a tension between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. Israelis are taking ownership over their Judaism, whether the government promotes a monopoly or not. And with some resourcefulness and a refusal to be defeated, those of us outside of the Orthodox establishment are continuing to build bridges within Israel and around the world, continuing to offer a Judaism that speaks to people in different ways, and are continuing to make a difference.