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Israel moves to improve religious freedom – for Jews

For the first time, Israel will begin funding rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, which have long been shut out in a country dominated by Orthodox Judaism.

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And while Israel permits liberal groups to run state-funded magnet schools that emphasize religious pluralism, they cannot get equal access to funds to establish synagogues or schools. And while liberal Jews are free to officiate at marriage ceremonies, weddings aren’t officially recognized unless a state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbi is present. The state will recognize a civil marriage from abroad before it will recognize a non-Orthodox Jewish ceremony in Israel.

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“On one hand there is freedom of religion for everyone, but on the other side there are major obstacles to exercise freedom of religion: The public money isn’t equal, and the state recognition isn’t given” to liberal clergy, says Yedidia Stern, a law professor and fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. Mr. Stern, an Orthodox Jew, says he believes that the state monopoly should be broke in favor of a "free market" of religious assistance.

Supreme Court case

The Supreme Court case involved a petition for the state to pay the salary of Miri Gold, a female Rabbi at a kibbutz ordained by the Reform movement. The court pressed the state to justify why Ms. Gold shouldn’t be paid for her work like other rabbis.

"We said, this is a democratic country. There’s no reason other streams can’t be recognized," says Rabbi Gold. "On the ground [the decision is] not that much, but in principle it’s a big thing."

The system of conferring state recognition on a select group of denominations stretches back to the 19th-century Ottoman control, when they gave official status to Jewish and Christian denominations alongside Muslim communities.

The system was continued after World War I by the British, who didn’t even recognize the Anglican Church for fear of upsetting an unwritten (and rather inflexible) "status quo’" between the sides, says Eli Lederhendler, a history professor at Hebrew University.

No separation of church and state here

Reform and Conservative Jews are "Jonny come-latelys" to Israel, whereas Orthodox groups have been here for decades and have been active in politics since their inception, according to Mr. Lederhendler. He says that the liberal movements also make up less than 1 percent of the population and only recently began seeking a larger cut of state funds – which runs against the values of religion-state separation the majority of them were raised on. 

"They are shifting from an American paradigm of private observance to an Israeli paradigm of bringing religion into the public square, and that is what this is all about," says Mr. Lederhendler.

"They are saying, 'If freedom of religion means that all religious groups are equally recognized, then we should be equally recognized, too, and it's not an issue is private conscience, it's an issue of public status."

But for many liberal Jewish leaders, their second-rate status is a civil rights issue.

"I feel the discrimination all the time," says Rabbi Naama Kelsman, a dean of the Reform’s Hebrew Union College seminary in Jerusalem. "None of my weddings are recognized. We have to fight to get anything beyond the minimum. They want to exhaust us, and depress us, and we will not be moved."

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong formal name for the Israel Democracy Institute and has since been corrected.

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