In what could be the most serious challenge to the legitimacy of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in its present form, Tzohar (Hebrew for window), an influential group of more than 600 religious Zionist Israeli rabbis, is launching a major media campaign this week, accusing the Chief Rabbinate of discriminatory policies over the right to officiate at marriages in Israel.

It’s about time rabbis concerned with the fabric of Jewish life in Israel are standing up to those haredi political and religious leaders seeking to narrow rather than broaden connections to the majority of Israelis who are not religiously observant.

The bold Tzohar move includes taking out newspaper ads and billboards charging the Chief Rabbinate with unfairly treating both non-observant couples who wish to marry in Israel and the Modern Orthodox rabbis who would officiate. The campaign says the Chief Rabbinate’s policies are illegal, unethical and will lead to further assimilation by causing thousands of couples to have civil marriages outside of Israel or disassociate from the faith.

We hope this campaign will help focus attention, here as well as in Israel, on how the once proud institution of the Chief Rabbinate has been hijacked politically by those seeking to devalue it.

Indeed, one could advance the case, sadly, that the actions of the Chief Rabbinate, like making the conversion process more difficult, are a major reason why most Israelis have lost respect for Orthodox Judaism.

“There is no doubt that hatred of religious values and heritage [among many secular Israelis] is due to the behavior of the politicians that control the Chief Rabbinate,” said Rabbi David Stav, a founder and chair of Tzohar, which was formed after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to serve as a bridge between religious and secular Jews in Israel. He told The Jewish Week that the painful decision to confront the Chief Rabbinate in a public way is a response to the Rabbinate’s decision to no longer allow Tzohar rabbis to officiate at Israeli weddings because they are not government-appointed regional rabbis.

Rabbi Stav was in the U.S. to encourage diaspora leaders, not just in the Orthodox community, to speak out against the coercive polices of the Chief Rabbinate and for allowing Tzohar, whose rabbis have performed some 70,000 weddings in the last 15 years, many of them for secular Israelis, to continue to serve all of Israeli society.

Tzohar rabbis have sought to counter the elements who seek to polarize Israel, and are best known for offering compassionate pre-wedding counseling, and ceremonies that are respectful, and free of charge.

With elections for new chief rabbis scheduled in about a year and a half (an assembly of 150 rabbinic and public leaders votes) Tzohar is said to be considering promoting a candidate. We hope it won’t be too late.