Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the leader of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, takes satisfaction in the Orthodox establishment’s stepped-up opposition to his group’s efforts. He sees it as a sign of serious concern on the part of the Chief Rabbinate.
“Until recently we were seen as an insignificant import from America,” Rabbi Bandel said during a visit to The Jewish Week office last week, “and the Orthodox establishment tended to ignore us. But now, with our political and legal successes, they see their monopoly threatened and they are fighting back.”
The fight, of course, is over religious pluralism, or more accurately the attempt by the Conservative and Reform movements to end the Orthodox monopoly in Israel on matters of religion and personal status. It has played itself out, publicly and often unpleasantly, in a number of areas in recent years, most notably over which rabbis can perform conversions, the status of mixed gender and female prayer at the Kotel, and non-Orthodox representation on religious councils.
“I would be discouraged if the Chief Rabbinate ignored us,” said Rabbi Bandel, a native Israeli whose movement has 48 synagogues around the country and whose budget, primarily for education and youth programming, is $2.3 million, a figure that is less than the budget of some congregations in America, he noted wistfully.
Still, the rabbi said that in addition to the Supreme Court rulings in favor of opening the religious councils to include non-Orthodox Jews, he is encouraged by a growing interest in non-Orthodox Judaism among Israelis.
He noted that after a massive rally by haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, several months ago in opposition to the Supreme Court, up to 1,000 Israelis sent checks and sought to join Masorti congregations. Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most respected novelists, publicly called on Israelis to show their solidarity with the cause by joining a Conservative or Reform congregation.
“People are coming to see that the issue is not just freedom of religion but the democratic character of the Jewish state, the rule of law and the status of the Supreme Court,” Rabbi Bandel asserted. He said his movement is making inroads with immigrants from Latin America and the former Soviet Union, and that while most Israelis are still not regular shul-goers, more are having life-cycle events in Conservative synagogues.
With the national elections set for May 17, Rabbi Bandel is involved in a large-scale media campaign urging Israelis to support freedom of religion. But Masorti is not endorsing any particular candidate for prime minister, since it opposes mixing religion and state. To do so would be hypocritical, according to the rabbi. “We would be cutting off the branch on which we are sitting.”
It’s clear, though, that he feels the Netanyahu government has not been sufficiently supportive, despite its effort, through the Neeman Commission, to achieve a practical solution to religious conflicts. As the only Conservative member of the commission, Rabbi Bandel believes Yakov Neeman, the chairman, thought he could persuade the chief rabbis to cooperate. When that effort failed, Rabbi Bandel said, the commission was, in effect, finished, but that Neeman “has continued to pretend it is working.”
The rabbi said he supports the new conversion institute, comprised of teachers from the three religious branches, but pointed out that its requirement of 440 hours of instruction does not make it a practical solution for the estimated 200,000 Russians living in Israel who are not Jewish.
The only real answer, he said, is for Israel to end the Orthodox monopoly on matters of religious status, which he believes will come eventually.