Jerusalem — In a small kibbutz outside the central Israeli city of Ramla, Rabbi Miri Gold enjoys her last few months as Israel’s first female Reform rabbi on a state salary. “I’m on sabbatical, and I will retire at the end of this year at the age of 70,” said Gold.

Rabbis in Israel draw their salaries from the government – but only if they are Orthodox. In 2005, Reform Judaism’s legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, decided to challenge this longstanding policy in the Supreme Court. They choose four Reform rabbis to petition the court, including Rabbi Gold. The Court eventually found in favor of the rabbis, and Rabbi Gold became the “poster child” for this major Supreme Court victory. “The state agreed that rabbis of non-orthodox communities should be entitled to salaries,” said Gold. “It was an historic precedent.” According to the IRAC, the first annual salaries were paid in December 2013 to just those four rabbis. Rabbi Gold is hopeful about the precedent set, even if the state has slowly and reluctantly expanded funding for more congregations. “At the time there were maybe five of us who were eligible. Today there could be 15,” said Gold. Still, the right-wing Likud government drags its feet on fully implementing the “Miri Gold Decision,” as the IRAC now calls it. Gold and her colleagues were not paid by the Ministry of Religion, but instead by the Ministry of Culture. “The ministry of religious services – traditionally controlled by the ultra orthodox parties – was not willing to be in charge of the matter, so we agreed that the ministry of culture would be in charge,” said Orly Likhovski, the director of the IRAC’s legal department.

This is not the only case of the government failing to fully implement the court decision. Funding for city neighborhood rabbis are still reserved solely for Orthodox rabbis. This was partially due to the Ministry of Religion’s proposed changes to the entire system, which were first announced in 2014. “The state declared that no new rabbis would be employed as neighborhood rabbis and that rabbis who retire would not be replaced. However, there are still 120 neighborhood rabbis serving all around Israel – all of them Orthodox men,” said Likhovski. After the IRAC petitioned the court again in 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced changes that would finally allocate funding for non-Orthodox rabbis in the cities. However, Likhovski still found these changes to be insufficient and plans to challenge it again. “The criteria were drafted in a way which would result in a very little funding and not all of the reform congregations would be entitled to it,” said Likhovski. “This is why we are submitting another petition, demanding that our rabbis would be paid the same salary as neighborhood rabbis, as long as neighborhood rabbis continue to be employed by the state.”

Rabbi Gold’s story begins in the United States. Born into a Conservative family in Detroit, Michigan, Gold was inspired by the communal living she witnessed at an Israeli kibbutz on her first trip to the country. After college she joined a gar’in – a name for a group of diaspora Jews planning to make aliyah to Israel as a group. Rabbi Gold’s gar’in chose an abandoned collective farm named after the ruins of the nearby Biblical city of Tel Gezer. “Part of their reasoning for going to this abandoned kibbutz was one – it was in a great location,” said Rabbi Gold. The kibbutz is only minutes outside of Ramla and a short bus ride to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But Rabbi Gold and her gar’in had another major motivation for starting their settlement from scratch. “We had the freedom to create our own policies. Which is sort of a liberal approach to Judaism and left-of-center approach to politics,” she added. From the very beginning, Kibbutz Gezer pursued any egalitarian approach to communal living. “We wanted equal opportunities for women, which in the end become equal opportunities for everybody,” said Gold. “Meaning – if the man wants to work in the children’s house – great! But it was more in the direction of women who wanted to do things that were not necessarily traditional women’s roles.”

Eventually, Gold decided to attend Reform rabbinical school. In 1999, Gold became the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. Gold founded her congregation, Birkat Shalom, immediately afterwards. Birkat Shalom is a “regional” congregation, which she says means : “it’s not of the kibbutz but it’s at the kibbutz and there’s involvement by those who are interested.” This immediately put Birkat Shalom in a precarious position with the government. The rabbis of regional congregations are paid by the state of Israel, but the state refused to recognize non-orthodox rabbis. Therefore, non-orthodox rabbis were limited in their legal functionality and unable to receive state salaries. Instead, Rabbi Gold’s congregation paid her salary out of their own pockets.

At Birkat Shalom, Rabbi Gold directed her congregants in many social justice-oriented initiatives to further Kibbutz Gezer’s greater goals of egalitarianism. Nearby Ramla is probably most famous for being the location of no less than five high security prisons, including Israel’s only all-female penitentiary and Ayalon Prison. Ayalon is particularly notorious – Adolf Eichmann was executed there in 1962, and the assassin of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was held there for years while serving a life sentence. Given the proximity to the prisons, Rabbi Gold’s congregation felt compelled to direct its social outreach to the incarcerated population. Birkat Shalom found a group working with prisoners in one of Ramla’s lower security prisons. “We started to work with prisoners in rehabilitation from Ramla. People who were likely to get out of prison in the next year or so. And that went until the prison closed,” said Gold. Part of Rabbi Gold’s outreach in the prison involved bringing in rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. “We wanted to do some kind of a project that would be mitzvah-oriented,” said Gold. “We’d get usually two students who were musical and had a little bit of Hebrew knowledge. They would work with the prisoners, play some music, and interact with them.”

After the prison closed, Gold wanted to continue working with students from rabbinical seminary. “We found out from another Reform congregation in Modi’in was working with this place called Beit Eden, which is a residence for very special needs kids,” she said. According to Gold, the children at Beit Eden all have severe cognitive disabilities such as Down syndrome. After going to school, the children return to Beit Eden for additional care. Rabbi Gold, her congregation, and her rabbinical students focus on providing religious service for the children at Beit Eden. “They come once a month and do a little Kabbalat Shabbat who range in age between seven and 20.” Despite the severe handicaps, the children at Beit Eden have knowledge about their faith. “When you’re with them, you have a feeling that you’re in a nursery school, where they know enough that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes. You can’t say the next holiday is Tu BiShvat when the next holiday is Pesach,” said Gold.

Rabbi Gold’s replacement at Birkat Shalom is already leading services, but she remains involved in her community and in her outreach programs like Beit Eden. Her replacement, Rabbi Steve Bornstein, will benefit from the government salary Gold fought to secure.