Reform Jews Fight Israel for Excluding Them From Jewish Outreach Efforts

Virtually all programs spearheaded by Religious Service Ministry's Jewish Identity Administration involve Orthodox partners, petitioners claim.

Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in November 2016.
Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City in November 2016. Michal Fattal

The Reform and Conservative movements filed suit against the Israeli government on Monday for systematically blocking their participation in state-funded Jewish outreach programs that target nonreligious Israelis.

In their petition to the High Court of Justice, the non-Orthodox movements charged that a relatively new initiative of the Ministry of Religious Services, designed to give nonreligious Israelis more exposure to Judaism, relies almost exclusively on collaboration with Orthodox organizations and institutions.

Since it was established four years ago, the ministry's Jewish Identity Administration has transferred tens of millions of shekels to the partners in these outreach projects, virtually all of them Orthodox, according to the petition. Numerous requests by the Reform and Conservative movements to become involved in these initiatives have been ignored, the petition said.

The appeal against the Ministry of Religious Services was submitted by the Israel Religious Actions Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, on behalf of both it and the Conservative movement.

According to the petitioners, the preferential treatment given to Orthodox entities is proof that the Jewish Identity Administration “is violating its obligation to distribute state funds in accordance with the principles of equality, pluralism and religious freedom,” and demonstrates a policy of “blatant” exclusion of the non-Orthodox movements.

The administration was established during the tenure of former Minister of Religious Services Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party. Today the ministry is controlled by Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party.

David Azoulay, the current minister, is known to be particularly antagonistic to the non-Orthodox movements. Soon after assuming his position in May 2015, his reference to the Reform movement as “a disaster for the Jewish nation” sparked calls for his ouster among world Jewish leaders.

According to the petition submitted Monday, when the Jewish Identity Administration was established, it pledged to include all Jewish movements in its outreach programs.

The flagship projects undertaken in this context have virtually all involved exclusive partnership with Orthodox groups. These include a project that dispatches Jewish outreach coordinators to cities and towns around the country, another one that encourages nonreligious Israelis to become acquainted with their local synagogues, and yet another that focuses on improving the connection between university students and Judaism.

Several months ago, the city of Tel Aviv cut off ties with the Jewish Identity Administration, saying it had no interest in receiving state funding for an outreach coordinator committed exclusively to disseminating Orthodox Judaism.

To date, the Reform and Conservative movements have only been asked to participate in one small–scale artistic project funded by the Jewish Identity Administration.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Religious Services did not respond to a request for comment.