Israel's first female Reform rabbi with a government salary approaches retirement

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.

Day #1: Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV — After a nine-and-a-half-hour flight, the Covering Religion team landed in Tel Aviv at 10:30 a.m. local time. After getting through customs and obtaining international cell phone service, we met with our Columbia professor, Greg Khalil, and our local expert, Ophir Yarden of ADAShA, a Jerusalem-based organization that specializes in interreligious tour experiences.

Ophir led us to what he described as one of the rougher neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, Neve Sha’anan. In past decades, the neighborhood was a place where Tel Avivans went to buy shoes. Now, it’s home to a diverse population of migrant peoples, including refugees, asylum seekers, and workers from places like Eritrea, Ecuador, the Philippines and Thailand. There we met Lisa Richlen, an Israeli-American Ph.D. candidate and an expert in working with Tel Aviv’s migrant communities. Many of these migrants are Christians, including West Africans from countries like Ghana and Nigeria. Churches serve as cultural as well as religious centers for these communities.

Tel Aviv’s largest Pentecostal church is somewhat hidden in Neve Sha’anan. But a lot of businesses in the area offer more than what they advertise out front. Ethiopian restaurants double as community centers. Bodegas line the streets selling knockoff sneakers and designer brands, but also sell Israeli SIM cards. Lift Up Your Head Church is located in an unremarkable beige apartment building, which it shares with an Escape Room franchise. After a short walk from the bus stop, we met two pastors serving the West African community in Tel Aviv.

“We come here to refuel, for God to empower us,” said Pastor Jeremiah Dairo of Lift Up Your Head. Dairo, who moved to Israel from Ghana in 1987, works with Christians from across African diaspora in Israel. Dairo’s church movement started in Jaffa, but has since spread across the country. He said that there are now over 40 associated Pentecostal churches in Israel, the largest of which can attract 100 to 200 churchgoers each weekend.

Sign leads the way to the Lift Your Head Church, Tel Aviv

Dairo insisted that his movement is “rewriting the bible,” saying “I’m not here to tell you what happened to Ezekiel. I am telling you what God has done through my life.” Pentecostal churches, one of the fastest growing Christian movements in Africa, heavily emphasize the individual’s connection with God. A typical service at Lift Up Your Head begins with an hour of Bible study, in which Dairo will pose a question for his congregants to ponder. They then “share testimonies” together, which is when Dairo asks his followers to “tell us what the Lord has done” for them personally. The next part of services involves worship music. Behind the pulpit on an elevated stage, a drum set, guitar and bass guitar are still out of their cases since the last service. Dairo said his churchgoers “enjoy and entertain themselves before God” and “dance our problems away.” They see this moment as a call to share the word of God. “By the time we leave here, somebody’s life has turned around,” he said.

The African churches also perform important social functions for their community. Lift Up Your Head supports homeless asylum seekers and migrants, even those that are not Christian. “They have nothing. Nothing. Nothing,” said Pastor Solomon Tetteh, a Nigerian Pentecostal minister. “We see them through this storm.” Tetteh’s church also does significant work with the disabled community, including paying visits to the homes of migrants with visual impairments.

The migrants in Israel need all the help they can get. In the last few years, Israel’s right-wing government has been trying to deport the migrant communities of South Tel Aviv, including the West Africans. The Likud government often refers to these people as “infiltrators” and threats to public health, as there are higher rate of prostitution and drug abuse in their neighborhoods. However, Dairo and Tetteh remain optimistic about their community’s long term success here. They answer the government’s apathy toward them with love. To them, Israel is the promised land. “God supernaturally positioned us in this country,” said Dairo. “Most of the time we depend on God because we don’t have outside support,” he said, adding that “once God has called you, you will make a way.” Both pastors also praised the opportunities they were afforded in the country. “Israel is a miracle. Staying here every day is a miracle,” said Dairo.

But mostly, West African Christians feel inspired by the history that surrounds them. Living next to the places where Jesus walked is awe-inspiring for Dairo. “Some of the things and places we have read in the Bible — we have seen it and know it’s real.” It’s enough to convince him that he has a home in this place, too.

(Image courtesy of Eleonore Voisard)