Rabbi says disenchanted, secular Israelis ‘might leave country’

Many tired of rules imposed by Chief Rabbinate on marriage, divorce and conversion


Israel’s religious politics could help push secular Jews out of the country, one of its leading modern Orthodox rabbis fears. Rabbi David Stav, chairman of the organisation Tzohar, said he was “afraid a lot of Israelis might leave” out of a combination of political disenchantment and religious alienation.

Many secular Israelis who had helped to develop the state felt it had been “stolen from them” by others who were unwilling to share in the burden of maintaining it.

They felt they were “carrying on their shoulders the Israeli economy, the Israeli army, but the country, the state is not under their control, it was given to somebody else that is not taking responsibility”, he said in an interview during a visit to London.

Tzohar was set up to bring Judaism back to Israelis who feel estranged from the religious establishment. It has criticised a state-run Chief Rabbinate it regards as dysfunctional, as well as the influence wielded by Charedi religious parties as part of the government coalition.

Tzohar is “the ultimate address, the alternative for those Jews who want to be engaged with Judaism but don’t want to be connected to the establishment,” he said.
“I want all Jewish people to feel that Israel is their place.”

Tzohar rabbis conduct Orthodox weddings, barmitzvahs and other ceremonies for those who do not want to have them under the official rabbinate’s auspices.
It recently received a grant from the government towards its efforts to help Jews from the Former Soviet Union and elsewhere establish their Jewish status when they lack personal documentation.

A year and a half ago, it challenged the Chief Rabbinate by opening its own conversion courts under the supervision of Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, a former principal of Jews’ College in London.

The 500-plus converts so far represent 20 per cent more than those converted under the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Stav said.

Many of them are minors, often the child of a mother who has not been accepted as halachically Jewish by the official rabbinate.

“The Chief Rabbinate refused to convert minors and we encourage minors,” he said.

Around 2,000 couples have signed the new prenuptial agreement introduced by Tzohar, which is designed, in the event of marital breakdown, to stop men trapping their wives by denying them a get.

Next month the Supreme Court will rule on one of the most contentious religious issues over the past couple of years — the delayed plan to designate a space at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer groups.

While ideologically religious parties will oppose any concession to Reform or Conservatives, Rabbi Stav said, privately “they will be very happy the Supreme Court will take the decision instead of them”.

Over the past few years, Tzohar, which has a membership of more than 650 rabbis, has run services on Yom Kippur and Purim in community centres for Israelis deterred from synagogue.

Now the organisation has plans to go further – to set up “what we call transparent kippot congregations, for those who are not observant, who will come from time to time on Shabbat”.

Breaking down the hatred of official religion is not easy, he said. If he is able to launch 50 such congregations in the next couple of years, “I will be more than happy. 
“This will be a major change, it is going to be the fourth denomination.”

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