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Reform rabbi takes on Orthodox establishment in Israel

Gilad Kariv has battled the dominance of Israel's Orthodox, fighting in court battles for state recognition and funding for more liberal movements. Now he heads the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

September 04, 2010|By Vita Bekker, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tel Aviv — Gilad Kariv has been indefatigable in his battle against the dominance of Israel's Orthodox community.

The 36-year-old rabbi, and lawyer by training, had fought court battles seeking state recognition and funding for the more liberal Jewish movements for four years before being tapped last year to head the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, which represents the less strict Reform stream in Israel.

The position thrusts Kariv into the sometimes heated relationship between the liberal Reform movement, which ordains women and openly gay individuals as rabbis and permits Jews to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, and the Orthodox movement, which prohibits such actions and follows a strict interpretation of Jewish law.

He recently spoke with the Los Angeles Times:

Why does the Reform movement remain fairly insignificant in Israelis' religious life?

Indeed, when we compare the size and strength of Reform Judaism in Israel to its strength and capacity in the U.S., we are still a small movement. But it has grown quickly in the past two decades. If we started in the 1990s with 12 Reform congregations in Israel, today we are talking about more than 30.

We need to remember three things. One is that most Israelis, especially those who are not Orthodox, do not feel the need to be affiliated religiously. One of the benefits of being in a Jewish state is that the issue of religious affiliation is less important.

The second reason is that we need to admit that in many ways we are a young phenomenon in Israel. And the last reason, which is the most known, is that we are facing in Israel a very serious battle with the Orthodox establishment, which is well funded by the government and is doing what it can to block our way into the Israeli consensus.

Have you made inroads in expanding your membership outside your traditional base of U.S. immigrants?

One of our methods to expand is to open new Reform congregations in those cities and communities that lack any non-Orthodox religious presence. Every year we will open between two to three new congregations around the country.

We are also investing a lot of effort to establish educational operations. We have more than 50 preschools, six elementary schools and two high schools that are formally attached to the movement. We are going to double the number of the preschool programs till 2020 and open at least two new high schools and two new elementary schools.

In Israel, many ultra-Orthodox don't believe that Reform even counts as being observant. They almost equate it with secular. What is your response?

Those who want to learn about us and work with us know the truth, that Reform Judaism in Israel represents a serious and sincere Jewish option that can open the gates of Judaism to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, many of them secular, who are detached from their Jewish identity.

In what ways is there inequality on a governmental level between the ultra-Orthodox group and the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements?

It starts with the basic fact that in Israel there is no constitutional separation between religious institutions and the government. There are many religious institutions that are fully integrated into the executive branch and they are all Orthodox. The only Jewish denomination that enjoys formal legislated recognition by the state is the Orthodox denomination.

The Israeli government refuses to recognize the validity of marriage ceremonies conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis. All the public burial services are handed to the Orthodox monopoly. The state is funding the salaries of almost 3,000 rabbis, and all of them are Orthodox.

In each municipality there is a special executive body that is responsible for supplying religious services, and all of those local units are controlled by the Orthodox.

The state of Israel invests billions of Israeli shekels in religious institutions. More than 98% of that budget goes to Orthodox institutions and services.

The ultra-Orthodox monopoly is largely dependent on the political support of religious parties. But since such parties have been part of every Israeli ruling coalition for decades, what hope do you have that the dominance of the ultra-Orthodox will eventually diminish?

I have a very strong belief in the collective wisdom of Israeli society. Although it will be a very long process, I strongly believe that the day will come and the issue of religion and state will become critical in the Israeli political system and that the Orthodox parties will face the collapse of their monopoly.

That's because more and more Israelis understand that when we are talking religion and state we are not talking only about the ability of the Reform rabbi to conduct weddings. We are talking about the future of Israeli society.

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