Hoping to Break Israel’s Orthodox Monopoly, New Jersey Family to Pay Rabbis Shunned by State

An Israeli conservative rabbi during synagogue services. Photo courtesy Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.
An Israeli conservative rabbi during synagogue services. Photo courtesy Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.

By Judy Maltz

If the state of Israel won’t pay the salaries of rabbis of certain denominations, then we will. That, in a nutshell, is how one family from Livingston, New Jersey, hopes to foment a religious revolution in Israel. By providing a living wage to rabbis who are not eligible for state funding – and that includes the vast majority of Conservative, Reform, and liberal Orthodox rabbis today – this family believes it can help build and nurture alternative religious communities in Israel, and thereby, push back against the dominance of Orthodoxy.

“We see our goal as providing open access to Judaism,” said Bill Lipsey at a kick-off event held this week in Israel for the new nonprofit he and his wife Amy founded to promote their mission.

“If we want rabbis to be at the forefront of this movement, and it’s natural that they would be, we have to make sure they are well paid, and that instead of taking on multiple jobs to make ends meet, they are devoting themselves entirely to their communities.”

The Honey Foundation for Israel, his newly launched organization, will aim over the next few years to provide monthly stipends to 500 community rabbis in Israel who do not get paid by the state, said Lipsey.

Until two years ago, Israel only paid salaries to Orthodox rabbis sanctioned by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. But following an eight-year legal battle, the state was eventually forced to pay salaries to rabbis representing the non-Orthodox movements as well.

These salaries are paid only to rabbis serving in congregations in outlying, regional councils, rather than in major cities. And lest this funding be interpreted as formal recognition of the non-Orthodox movements, the money is paid out of the budget of the Ministry of Culture rather than the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

This past year, nine Reform rabbis and two Conservative rabbis were deemed eligible for this funding. By contrast, an estimated 500 Orthodox rabbis are on the state payroll. The Reform movement has 110 ordained rabbis in Israel, with about 50 of them employed by congregations, either full-time or part-time.

The Conservative movement has 150 ordained rabbis in Israel, with about 25 employed by congregations.

The salaries of these rabbis are generally financed by a combination of congregational dues and contributions from parent movements abroad. Neither does the state pay salaries to liberal Orthodox rabbis, who like their Conservative and Reform counterparts, tend to be shunned by Israel’s more rigid Orthodox establishment.

The Lipseys do not choose which rabbis get the money; rather they hand the money over to the movements and let them decide. “I have no intention of being an employer,” says Bill.

The idea for their foundation first took root about five years ago, when the Lipsey family spent a year in Ra’anana exploring the option of a permanent move to Israel. In the end, they went back to the United States for family and professional reasons – not because they didn’t feel wanted as Conservative Jews in Israel, they insist, even though that also happened to be true.

“While in Israel, I discovered you could only be one of two things – either you were Orthodox or you were secular,” Bill told participants at the kick-off event, held at the home of friends in Ra’anana.

“There was nothing besides that, and if you were secular, it usually came with lots of contempt for anything that has to do with religion. So my approach to being a Jew was not considered okay in this country.”

They began their venture on a pilot basis a few years ago, providing funding to a group of rabbis affiliated with the Conservative movement exclusively. But after Bill’s father passed away last year, a decision was taken to “widen the tent,” as he puts it, and open funding opportunities to rabbis of all denominations. (His father’s nickname was “Honey,” hence the name of the new organization).

The Honey Foundation supports 30 rabbis in Israel – 22 Conservative and 8 liberal Orthodox. “Our stipend is meant to support not more than half their salaries, but ideally, we’d like it to be no more than a quarter,” says Bill.

This extra cushion, he says, is meant to help these rabbis remain fully committed to their congregational work and not have to moonlight to get through the month.

The Lipseys still maintain their day jobs – Bill is president and founding partner of an investment management company in New York, and Amy is a practicing psychoanalyst. Their daughter Sarah will be running the new nonprofit. In the meantime, the initiative is being financed entirely out of their own pockets.

“Let’s just say we’ve put several million dollars aside for this,” says Bill. “I don’t want to go into any more detail than that, but I’d love to get some other people on board.”

In the religious revolution he envisions, the different streams and denominations of Judaism will all have equal standing in Israel, Bill says, and people will no longer have to choose between Orthodoxy and nothing.

That will be thanks, in no small part, to the rabbis he will be supporting who, if he has his way, will be standing on the front lines.