Israel allows government councils to pay non-Orthodox rabbis

The Israeli government will begin paying non-Orthodox rabbis and recognizing them as community leaders.

The attorney general’s office advised the Supreme Court Tuesday that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

Only rabbis in farming communities and regional councils—not in cities—will be able to receive this funding. The vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative communities are in large population centers.

The attorney general’s office has said that for now, up to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis may receive state support. Before this decision, only Orthodox rabbis received state funding.

The non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salary from the Culture and Sports Ministry, rather than the Religious Services Ministry—which funds Orthodox rabbis. In addition, according to The Jerusalem Post, funding will go only to the rabbis of communities that request it.

“We have a long-term goal to have an inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “We’re going to be patient and persevere until the ideal meets the real. This is one step forward in that effort.”

The attorney general’s announcement follows out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Miri Cohen, a Reform rabbi in central Israel’s Kibbutz Gezer.

The movement and Cohen petitioned for the state to fund the Gezer Reform community and Cohen in the same manner it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

Earlier this month, the panel of judges presiding over the negotiations—led by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein—asked the attorney general to intervene.

Reform Rabbis Split Over Performing Mixed Marriages

Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., went through plenty of placement interviews after her 1998 ordination as a Reform rabbi. Everywhere, she got the same question: not about her attitude toward homosexuality, not whether she wore a kippah and tallit, but whether she would officiate at an intermarriage.

“It has become the litmus test for placement,” Bravo said in San Diego at last month’s annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinical association.

Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, N.Y., a member of the conference’s ad-hoc committee on intermarriage, hoped to introduce a resolution at the convention calling on the organization to condone rabbis performing intermarriages, as long as the non-Jewish partner doesn’t practice another faith and the couple is open to leading a Jewish life. That’s the standard required by most Reform rabbis that perform mixed marriages.

Knowing it was still too controversial to pass easily, however, Davidson and his colleagues put off a resolution until the conference’s next convention in March 2007.

Even then, it will be a tough sell. Still, the issue undeniably is heating up.
Unlike their Orthodox and Conservative colleagues, who are not permitted to perform intermarriages, Reform rabbis are discouraged but not forbidden from doing so. A 1973 conference resolution declares the group’s opposition to members participating in any ceremony that solemnizes a mixed marriage, but the resolution doesn’t bind rabbis to that policy.

Consequently, Reform rabbis — as well as Reconstructionist, Humanist and unaffiliated rabbis — must decide on an individual basis whether they will perform intermarriages. Many say it’s one of their most difficult decisions.
“The question of officiation is a very tricky one,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “It’s the only time where we say no.”

“No” is not a popular answer in today’s Reform congregations, Reform rabbis say. Though there aren’t hard numbers, it’s estimated that about half say yes.
Their ranks are growing every year, forced more by pressure from their congregants — many of them intermarried themselves — than by any theological revision.

Rabbis at the conference convention said the tipping point may finally have been reached: At a time when half of all new Jewish marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, Reform rabbis who refuse to perform intermarriages feel they’re on the defensive.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Westwood said that he won’t officiate at an interfaith wedding, but that the Reform movement should continue with efforts to include non-Jewish spouses in the synagogue.

“The key thing is not the actual performance of the ceremony,” he said. “The key is what are we doing beyond the ceremony to integrate the family into Jewish life.”

On the other hand, rabbis who do officiate believe that they can finally be open about their stance.

“We need to be realistic,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Turning mixed couples away at the altar is “enormously hurtful.”
Some Reform rabbis believe it’s time for the conference to adopt a nuanced acceptance of the practice.

“We’re living in a new era of American Jewish life,” Davidson said.
The 1973 resolution discouraging rabbis from officiating at intermarriages was predicated on the assumption that those unions “invariably led to assimilation,” but growing numbers of mixed couples joining Reform congregations and raising Jewish children have disproved that thesis, Davidson said.

“We should be ready to be there when the couple begins its Jewish journey, assuming we feel that’s the journey they’re going to take,” he said.

Others, like Rabbi Steven Fox, the conference’s newly installed executive vice president, think the time isn’t right. The conference should unite Reform rabbis rather than set potentially divisive policy, Fox said, adding that rabbis who don’t perform intermarriages need the support of the conference for their increasingly unpopular decisions.

Even many rabbis who do perform interfaith weddings say it should be an individual decision, not movement policy.

After two decades of not officiating at intermarriages, Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif., said she changed her position in 2003 out of “admiration for the non-Jews in our community whose selflessness, dedication and commitment to creating a Jewish life have strengthened the life of the synagogue.”

It became clear to her, she said, “that if these people are making themselves part of us, then I want to be there for them at every important life-cycle event.”

But she came to her decision on her own, in consultation with other rabbis she respects.

“I don’t think the CCAR needs to establish a position,” Shanks said.
What emerged from discussions at the convention was how carefully Reform rabbis are making these decisions, and how similar their reasoning is, no matter what they decide.

“Those of us who do mixed marriages feel we’re strengthening Judaism. Those of us who don’t do them feel we’re strengthening Judaism,” said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple in Atlanta.

Some say their refusal to perform mixed marriages has led the non-Jewish partner to convert later, out of respect for the rabbi’s position. Others say that performing the wedding and embracing the mixed couple from the beginning eventually leads many non-Jewish spouses to convert.

Those interviewed agreed that the officiation debate focuses too much on just one step, and perhaps not the most important step, in what should be an ongoing journey of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., won’t give couples an answer over the phone. He brings every couple in for a personal talk, to open a dialogue that he continues even after the marriage.

Citing a recent study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Institute, Jaffe said there’s no evidence that a rabbi’s position on performing mixed marriages plays a role in whether or not couples feel welcome in the Jewish community.

“More important than having a rabbi at the wedding is the kind of welcome the couple gets down the road,” he said.

To help rabbis share their decision-making processes, as well as information on how they conduct interfaith wedding ceremonies, Ed Case of announced at the convention that he’ll create a relevant resource center on his group’s web site.

“Whether a rabbi should officiate or not is not the issue,” Fox said. “How we help the mixed marrieds engage in Jewish life is more important.”

‘JAM’-packed Campus Outreach

It’s not unusual to see 60 students cramming into an
nonairconditioned duplex on fraternity row on a Saturday night at UCLA — unless
those students happen to be surrounding a havdalah candle singing Hebrew songs.

But so it is on this warm winter Saturday night, as a crowd
of Jewish students gather for sushi and havdalah at the home of Rabbi Benzion
Klatzko. Affectionately referred to by students as “Rabbi K,” with his energy
and youthfulness, Klatzko, 34, could easily pass for a student if it weren’t
for the “Rabbi With Attitude” sign on his front door. Klatzko serves as one of
the on-campus rabbi for JAM, the Jewish Awareness Movement at UCLA, an outreach
organization that aims to help unaffiliated Jews “return to their roots,” as
Klatzko said.

With a population that is approximately 8 percent Jewish,
UCLA houses many different Jewish groups on campus. Some, like the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee and Bruins for Israel, are political, and
others, such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, tend to be more
social or religious. 

 Recent years, however, have seen the coming of new
organizations  — those that are taking a more aggressive approach in instilling
Judaism into students.  

“Our role is for people who don’t know enough about Judaism
to be looking, or have had a negative experience growing up,” said Klatzko, who
can often be found casually conversing with students on Bruin Walk.

On this crowded Saturday evening, Klatzko is comfortably
milling around his home on the second floor of the building that he and his
family share with JAM’s other on-campus rabbi, Rabbi Eli Bloom. Mingling with
students, he stops to talk to Sara Monroe, a sophomore who was turned on to the
organization when she was approached by Klatzko while sitting at a table on
campus and has been involved in the organization ever since. How did the rabbi
guess that the blond, blue-eyed Monroe was Jewish?

“He asks everyone,” she replied.

Many students find Klatko’s and JAM’s active, hands-on
approach to Judaism appealing.

“The rabbis are really accessible to talk to about anything
that is going on in your life,” said sophomore Aaron Weinberg.

JAM was established in 1993 as a joint venture between UCLA
Hillel and Westwood Kehilla, the neighborhood Orthodox synagogue, to serve the
needs of Orthodox students on campus. It was funded by a three-year grant from
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; when the grant ended in 1996,
current JAM Directors Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Zaret took over the organization
and transformed it into an outreach organization hoping to make students more
religious. JAM is currently one of four of its kind that exist on campuses
throughout the United States.

“We’re focusing on Jews with no background at all. It’s our
expertise and it’s where we saw the greatest need,” Zaret told The Journal.

With a database of 2,000 students, JAM’s events tend to be,
well, jammed. The organization events include a weekly portion learning group
and a service that matches a student with an Orthodox family for Shabbat

Its JAM’s most popular programs are its winter and summer
trips to New York and its summer trips to Israel, where participants interact
and experience life within various Orthodox communities. “It breaks
misconceptions that these people are cold and hard and ultra-religious,” Zaret
said. Approximately 600 students have participated in the highly subsidized
trips over the past seven years.

Freshman Haggie Mazler went on the New York trip with some
50 students in December. The students visited the diamond exchange in Midtown
Manhattan — where many Chasidim work — and went to Monsey, N.Y., a religious
suburb in Rockland County.

 “The New York trip was about learning how Orthodox people live
and how they study and how they survive in the real world,” Mazler told The
Journal. “Even if you disagree with what you see, you still learn so much and
you have such an appreciation for Judaism,”  Haggie said.

Some students and educators disagree with what they see as
JAM’s monolithic approach.

Junior Tami Reiss praises JAM’s educational work, but is
critical of the organization’s insularity. “Because Rabbi K doesn’t think the
Conservative and Reform movements work as well at keeping people within the
faith, he doesn’t expose students to them,” she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA said,
“I often feel that there’s a tension between the different approaches of two
teachers. One teacher is saying, ‘come to me, I have all the questions’ and the
other saying ‘come to me, I have all the answers.’ I tend to see Hillel as a
place that says to students, ‘come let’s explore these questions together, but
I can’t promise you that at the end we will find the answer. All I know is that
we will confront the problem with integrity.’ The other approach would
guarantee that there must be an answer, and that we will certainly find it.”

Hillel, which has a global network of more than 500 regional
centers, campus foundations and student organizations, caters to the
approximately 2,500 Jewish students at UCLA.

“At Hillel, we want to give students an opportunity to
experience the rich rhythms of Jewish life, so that they will be able to make
an intelligent decision as to how they want to grow Jewishly and to what extent
they want to be involved,” Seidler-Feller said. He believes that students will
go in a variety of different directions and “we have to legitimate and nurture
the different paths that they choose to take.”

Despite their different philosophies, Hillel and JAM do
occasionally run programs together and their student participants often
overlap. One such example includes a recent joint Hillel-JAM Shabbat dinner.

“JAM is for the student who won’t feel fulfilled unless they
are doing something uniquely Jewish,” Zaret said.

Zaret and other JAM leaders view their approach as
open-minded, noting that students are also exposed to Jews who are leaders in
the secular community in the fields of finance, entertainment and politics.

“Where there are people that are reconnecting to their
Judaism, even though it’s through Conservative, or perhaps Reform, we — in
principle — are delighted to expose students to such people, and in practice we
have done it.” (They recently had entertainment agent David Lonner as a

“We’re looking for people with a passion that have their
foot in both worlds — both the Jewish world and the secular world, whether it
is politics, finance, or entertainment,” Zaret said. “Generally speaking, we
notice that the people that are most passionate about their reconnecting to
Judaism happen to be within the Orthodox community.”

According to Rabbi David Refson, dean of Neve Yerushalayim
College in Jerusalem, compared to other campus outreach organizations around
the country, JAM at UCLA has one of the highest percentage of students becoming
shomer Shabbat.

Ultimately, Zaret hopes that the students will retain some
aspect of what they are exposed to through JAM. “When you’re dealing with
hundreds and hundreds of students over time, the reality is that the majority
doesn’t become Orthodox,” Zaret said. “But, the overwhelming majority develops
a much stronger connection to their Jewish roots, and perhaps it will mean not
intermarrying and perhaps it will mean keeping the Sabbath.” 

To register for JAM’s first spring New
York trip, March 22-30, contact Rabbi Benzion Klatzko at
 or at (310)
209-4934. p>

Divided We Stand

One Friday night, I was at a local rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner, and he said to me: “The Jewish Journal should be a newspaper that unites the different denominations of our community.”

“Rabbi,” I responded, “during this last hour alone I have heard two mentions of excommunication — and that’s within the Orthodox community. In addition, I’m not even certain that the two frum sides of town [Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson] actually get along with each other. So how do you expect one newspaper to bridge the gap between Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox when there’s so much dissension among those who are alike?”

The rabbi and I left the discussion for another time, but the question lingered with me.

It’s about more than one Jewish newspaper. It’s about our town.

I ran through many parts of it on Sunday while competing in the Los Angeles Marathon. We ran through Pico-Robertson and Fairfax, skimming by Hancock Park. We also ran through different non-Jewish neighborhoods, where kids of all colors slapped our hands, fed us Gatorade and sprayed welcome hoses on us in the shimmering heat. Religious women had a water table out in front of the Anshe Emes Synagogue on Robertson, and a band of Sikhs in white also cheered us on. It got me to thinking — and I had a lot of time to think during the five hours of the marathon — about this new city of mine, Los Angeles. How different it is from New York and Jerusalem, my other hometowns.

Like New York, there is much diversity, but also, between denominations, a muted animosity — or perhaps a distance that would sooner group Orthodox Jews with Orthodox Christians and Reform Jews with human rights activists than with each other.

This week, as we devote a special section to Orthodox Life, Jonathan Rosenblum asks, “What ever happened to Jewish unity?” from a religious perspective (page 32). But the fault lies on all sides. Certain groups do “outreach” to Muslims, to Christians, to everyone but our own community. Others can only identify with those who are like themselves.

It scares me, I guess, having lived for so long in Jerusalem and having seen the terrible rift between the secular and the religious, which left me — a traditionalist — stranded somewhere in the middle. To close that divide, it’s less like building a bridge and more like moving the prehistoric land masses back together after they are already on other sides of the world.

Israel’s religious conflict has made Jews strangers — or enemies — to one another. There are a few organizations that work toward introducing ultra-Orthodox people to secular people to show them that once you know a person as an individual, he or she ceases to become a number.

How many of us can talk of that kind of intermingling in Los Angeles?

Some people say that the Jews living in the Diaspora can teach Israelis how to get along, the way two Jews would here. But I fear that we are coming closer to their divisiveness.

How can the Orthodox accept Reform Jews if the latter are an anathema to the former’s religious practice? And how can a Reconstructionist Jew tolerate an ultra-Orthodox Jew when one has selected to lead a less fundamental lifestyle?

How can one newspaper offer divrei Torah without alienating the young secular Jew and run an Arts story without offending a religious Jew? (Don’t answer that.)

But really, how can we all get along, if by the choices we’ve made to be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist we are by definition rejecting the other options?

I recently went back to this rabbi’s house for Purim. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, they were all there. Perhaps it was the Nahafoch-hu, the world turned upside down as it is in the megillah. “Purim is the holiday where all the differences can be put aside,” the rabbi said at the holiday meal. “We can all share words of the Torah, enjoy the seudah and come together.”

Dialogue, tolerance, diversity — all overused buzzwords in today’s world. But in this community — a patchwork of thousands of individuals, affiliated and unaffiliated — is perhaps something worth looking into before it’s too late.

Taking the Middle Road

The Reform movement’s much-anticipated “Statement of Principles” may rival the Torah for most carefully scrutinized text in Jewish history.

The two-page statement, which seeks to spell out just exactly what Reform Judaism is about, was discussed for close to two years, underwent six drafts, garnered more than 30 amendments and sparked heated debate among Reform rabbis and their congregants.

The controversial document was adopted last Wednesday by an overwhelming margin of 324-68, with nine abstentions. It was the centerpiece of the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ four-day convention in Pittsburgh this week.

The statement seeks to reverse the movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which stridently rejected Jewish tradition and rituals. It aims to redefine Reform Judaism for the coming years: celebrating the movement’s growing acceptance of tradition and spirituality, while reaffirming its longtime commitment to inclusion, social action and diversity of thought.

The principles consist of a preamble that urges Reform Jews to “engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition” and statements about Reform Jews’ relationships with God, Torah, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Among other things, the document:

* Affirms the importance of studying Hebrew;

* Promotes lifelong Jewish learning;

* Calls for observance of mitzvot, or commandments, “that address us as individuals and as a community”;

* Urges observance in some form of Shabbat and holidays;

* Encourages tikkun olam, which the Reform movement emphasizes as social action, and tzedakah, or charitable giving.

“Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as a result of the unique context of our own times,” says the document.

Earlier drafts of the principles, including a version that appeared in Reform Judaism magazine six months ago, specified other mitzvot, such as observing kashrut and wearing kippot and tallitot In the end, a document very different from the original was adopted by the Reform rabbis, one that many rabbis here believed had been diluted too much.

The seemingly endless revisions made for a pareve document with little energy or inspiration, critics said.

But Rabbi Richard Levy, outgoing president of the CCAR, called the adoption of the principles a “wonderful moment for Reform Jews.”

Levy, who had authored the Reform Judaism piece and had been pictured wearing a yarmulke and a prayer shawl, said the document “will liberate Reform Jews to say there is nothing to in the Torah which is barred to me.”

When asked to respond to critics who said it was watered down from his original version, Levy said, “What was passed was a statement that reflected the large number of Reform Jews.”

Levy, who stressed the reaffirmation of Reform Judaism’s commitment to inclusiveness and social action, said, “I hope the Pittsburgh principles will deepen the lives of Reform Jews and make the entire community aware of our seriousness.”

Since the publication of Levy article, the principles had sparked debates about the identity of Reform Judaism, which claims more American Jews than any other movement. As rabbis and lay leaders discussed and revised the principles at official meetings, rank-and-file Reform Jews sounded off on the Internet.

In response to its request for feedback, the Reform Judaism magazine Web site received approximately 70 pages of comments from Reform Jews throughout North America.

Some respondents were supportive.

“I think without some kind of standards, Reform Judaism will lose its standing in the world Jewish community and either break off as its own religion or eventually disappear,” Ellen Lerner of Rochester, N.Y., wrote.

But the majority were critical, voicing fears that encouraging traditional mitzvot would soon give way to coercion and blur the lines between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

“If I wanted this much dogma, I’d be a Conservative Jew,” wrote Don Rothschild of Denver.

“I feel disenfranchised by my own religion,” wrote Barbara Stern of Winchester, Va. “It is beginning to feel like the only option that will be open to classical Reform Jews is the Unitarian Church, an option that will not be spiritually satisfying for many reasons.”

The board of one Reform temple, Lakeside Congregation in suburban Chicago, even passed a resolution urging the CCAR not to vote on any statement of principles.

While both supporters and opponents complained of the statement’s blandness, many acknowledged that insipidness is the fate of any committee-written document.

They also said that the Reform movement’s rank-and-file members might not yet be ready for something stronger, and that the statement should be viewed as a beginning rather than the last word on Reform Judaism.

The movement’s commitment to diversity of thought was highlighted during Tuesday night’s lively — if prolonged — discussion on proposed amendments at the CCAR convention. The evening was filled with passionate debate on everything from the correct application of Robert’s Rules of Order and grammatical fine points to just how accepting the movement should be of interfaith families.

One of the most heated discussions surrounded an amendment involving the intermarried. The amendment, which initially implied openness to all intermarried families, was changed — after much debate — to a carefully worded statement saying, “We are an inclusive community, opening doors to Jewish life to people of all ages, to varied kinds of families, to all regardless of their sexual orientation, to gerim, those who have converted to Judaism, and to all individuals and families, including the intermarried, who strive to create a Jewish home.”

Throughout the debate, shouts, ayes and nays alternated with laughter and applause. With the aroma of popcorn and other late-night snacks wafting through the air, the proceeding — in a packed hotel ballroom — took on a carnival-like atmosphere at times.

At one point, Levy, called out, exasperated by requests for new amendments and revotes, “People, we cannot keep changing our minds!”

Minor skirmishes erupted over the chair’s decision not to let someone speak out of order. There was discord as to whether “encouraging” immigration to Israel would render American Judaism extinct (the rabbis voted, no, it would not).

Although the debate was initially allotted a modest two hours, it quickly became clear Tuesday that the discussion on the statement would spill over. At 5:30 p.m., with only a handful of the proposed amendments discussed, the rabbis voted — after much squabbling on details — to adjourn until 8 p.m.

In the interlude that followed, most seemed to take the delays and quibbling in stride, seeing them as a sign not of discord but of everyone’s desire to create the strongest document possible.

“The problem is it’s like Talmud — everyone takes every word so seriously,” said Rabbi Morris Kipper of Coral Gables, Fla.

“The process is typical,” said Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of Homewood, Ill. “We like to argue. Two Jews have three opinions, and so much more so for rabbis.”

The vote, which occurred at Temple Rodeph Shalom, the largest Reform temple in Pittsburgh, reflected a consensus view among the rabbis that some statement was necessary, even if it wasn’t everyone’s ideal.

“I supported it in the end with some reservations, but I feel it is a statement that reflects at least in part who we are as Reform Jews,” Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Great Neck, N.Y., said, echoing the views of many here.

“It’s a centrist document, and it moves us from where we were a century ago,” he said.