Unlike in America, Israelis don't pay to pray. This has created a problem, that has found an unorthodox solution.By Judy Maltz for Haaretz
It’s taken almost 35 years, but if all goes as planned, Torat Hayyim, one of Israel’s oldest Conservative congregations, will finally move into its permanent home this coming March.
The roof above the 500-square-meter facility is already in place, and the floor tiles are now being laid. But rather than wait until the final nail is hammered into place, dozens of members of the Herzliya congregation, impatient to get a glimpse of their new home, piled into the construction site a few weeks ago to hold their annual Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony.
It cost more than $1 million to fund the building, and as Ruth Ritterband, co-president of the congregation, knows firsthand, raising that kind of money in Israel for this kind of project is no small challenge, which is why most of the funding came from donors abroad.
“In the U.S., the concept of giving and fundraising is very different from here,” says American-born Ritterband, who held various senior positions in the Conservative movement-affiliated Solomon Schechter school network before moving to Israel. “There are expectations that you’ll give there to the synagogue, the federation, the JCC – and not only that you’ll give, but also how much you’ll give. There just isn’t a tradition in Israel of giving for buildings.”
Nor is there a deep-seated tradition of paying congregational membership dues here, as Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, knows all too well. “There’s something in their DNA that makes it hard for Israelis to understand the idea of having these institutions voluntarily funded,” he notes. Especially, he adds, when they see the government allocating 2 billion shekels annually in taxpayer money to the officially sanctioned Orthodox establishment and its institutions.
So if neither the government nor the public is willing to cough up the money to finance alternative religious institutions that are not recognized by the state, how is it that the number of Conservative and Reform congregations has grown dramatically in the past 15-20 years? And where is the money coming from to pay for the buildings and services they provide?