Spring 2015

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Spring 2015

2014: A Good Year For Religious Pluralism

As the dust settles from the mid-March Knesset elections in Israel and the negotiations are completed towards the establishment of a new government, this is a good opportunity to look back at the previous government and the several major victories that took place during its tenure for non-Orthodox Judaism.

1. State-funded rabbinical salaries: Following an eight-year legal battle, the state for the first time began paying salaries to rabbis representing the non-Orthodox movements, albeit only to rabbis serving in congregations within the purview of outlying, regional councils, rather than in major cities.

2. Presidential recognition: In his first few and very hectic months in office, Israel's new president, Reuven Rivlin, took the time to meet with North American leaders of both the Conservative and Reform movements. This is the same man who previously had referred to Reform Judaism as "idol worship and not Judaism."

3. Tiny Torah trick: For two months in a row, Women of the Wall were able to realize a 25-year-old dream of reading from a Torah scroll at the women's section of the Western Wall. They succeeded by sneaking in a tiny Torah scroll, measuring just 28 centimeters in length but deemed perfectly kosher.

4. State funding for youth movement: Noam, the Masorti Movement's youth movement, for the first time ever received state funding through the Ministry of Education. One of the smaller youth movements in the country, Noam has been active in Israel for 30 years but only now met the requirements for state funding with more than 2,000 members.

5. Authority for performing Orthodox conversions broadened to include local municipal rabbinic councils: One of the last acts of the previous Netanyahu government was to authorize local rabbinic councils to perform conversions, in addition to the centralized rabbinic courts of the Chief Rabbinate. However, while symbolically very important, the new regulation has not been implemented due to the opposition of the Chief Rabbis.

6. Easier recognition for overseas conversions: Under orders from the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Interior published for the first time a list of criteria for recognizing conversions performed abroad Until now, these converts would find themselves at the mercy of low-level Interior Ministry bureaucrats, who tended to make their rulings on a case-by-case basis.

7. Talmud lesson from a female rabbi: Dr. Judith Hauptman, a Conservative rabbi and Talmud scholar from the Jewish Theological Seminary, became the first guest lecturer from abroad to address the Knesset's weekly religious study session. What to watch out for in 2015: For many years, the key issues dominating the agenda of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel have been changing the laws that regulate marriage and that regulate conversions. Both matters involve breaking the stranglehold of the Orthodox-run rabbinate on matters of religion and state in the country.

Another important issue for both the Conservative and Reform Movements concerns regulations related to prayer at the Western Wall. Leaders of both groups have been involved in discussions about the proposal from Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky for a new egalitarian prayer space near the existing gender-segregated areas. To date, however, no agreement has been reached with the Orthodox establishment about how this space will look. Progress in 2015 on both issues will depend on what parties eventually make up the government formed after the March 17th election.



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