Winter 2004-2005

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MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Winter 2004 - 2005

Masorti Judaism Finding Audience In Israel

MERCAZ Lobbying Provides Crucial "Stream Funding"

Finally, more than 50 years after the birth of the Jewish State, the values of egalitarianism and positive Jewish education, which characterize the Conservative and Reform Movements in the United States, are attracting a responsive audience in Israel. That which is holding back even greater growth is a lack of financial resources.

A public opinion poll, published on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, reported that 13% of all Israelis who were planning to attend services during the High Holy days would be attending either a Reform or Conservative synagogue, rather than an Orthodox one, despite the small number of non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel.

The Dahaf survey further indicated that many more would prefer to attend a non-Orthodox congregation were there one in walking distances to their home.

Coinciding with this interest in non-Orthodox services is a rise in the number of Israeli students enrolled in the Masorti-oriented "TALI" school system. Part of the Israeli secular public school system, the TALI schools are modeled on the Solomon Schechter day schools where students receive education in both Jewish and general subjects. Established in 1976, TALI Schools now service 22,000 students in 120 programs across the country. Indeed, more students attend TALI schools than are enrolled in the ultra-Orthodox SHAS-affiliated El HaMaayan program.

What these recent developments also show is that the lack of sufficient financial resources is keeping the non-Orthodox Movements from even greater growth. Because of the nature of Israel's multi-party parliamentary system, with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties holding the balance of power between the Labor and Likud Parties, the government allocates only meager funds to non-Orthodox programs and institutions.

For example, the Education Ministry funds additional teaching hours to schools in state-sponsored Orthodox religious schools for daily prayer services. Yet, TALI Schools that held services for students never qualified for such funding, because they were not perceived as sufficiently "religious". Only this past July did Israel's Supreme Court order the Ministry of Education to add the TALI schools to the list for prayer allocations.

As a result, funding for both the Masorti Movement, with its 50 congregations throughout Israel, and the TALI Schools overwhelmingly comes from North American Jews. But here, there are two complementary avenues for funding. One is in the form of direct contributions via organizations like the Masorti Foundation and the Friends of the Schechter Institute. With such worthy charities, the dollars going to Masorti institutions come from Conservative Jews as a result of special appeals.

A second form of funding comes through communal "Stream Funding"allocations from the Jewish Agency. A kind of non-Orthodox "affirmative action", the Jewish Agency established a budget line for "Stream Funding" in 1987 in response to lobbying from pressure from the Conservative and Reform Movements tired of seeing Orthodox institutions getting funding from the Israeli government without resources being made available to non-Orthodox institutions.

Starting with an initial annual allocation of $2.5 million for the three "streams" of Judaism (Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox) that are represented in the World Zionist Organization, "Stream Funding" was increased in 1998 and today stands at nearly $4.3 million on an annual basis. For Masorti Judaism, this amount translates to $700,000 to the Masorti Movement, $400,000 for the Schechter Institute and $400,000 for the TALI Education Fund. Additional Conservative Movement recipients include the United Synagogue's Fuchsberg Center, Kibbutz Hannaton and Moshav Shorashim. There are also smaller "Stream Funding" allocations from a number of local American Jewish federations.

"What makes Stream Funding so important", said Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, MERCAZ President, "is that the allocations to our institutions are being provided from sums that have already been collected in the annual 'UJA-Federation' campaign. As American Jews, we always support the annual federation campaign and, therefore, the amounts that are being directed to the Masorti Movement do not require an additional special fundraising effort; rather, they come from 'general' community funds.

"Without MERCAZ, as our movement's representative in the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency", continued Rabbi Kurtz, "we would have no access to these important communal funds. MERCAZ representatives on the governing boards of the WZO and Jewish Agency, selected in proportion to the number of MERCAZ delegates elected to the World Zionist Congress, lobby strenuously to maintain this affirmative action program. If we are successful in securing more members now and electing more delegates to the next Zionist Congress, scheduled for 2006, we could be even more successful in tapping Jewish communal funds for all the worthy programs of Masorti Judaism in Israel."


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