This past year has seen growing public legitimacy for the work of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (NTA,) a moderate voice in Israel’s religious community. One example: On Sukkot, NTA published an insert in the widely read religious, nationalist, conservative newspaper Makor Rishon on why religious families should send their children to liberal, open-minded schools. The supplement included articles by rabbis and other religious leaders who in the past refused to be publicly associated with NTA and its liberal worldview.

NTA also won a court case this year backing parents in Rosh Ha’ayin who wanted their religious school to be co-ed, despite the Ministry of Education’s opposition.

On the other hand, Rafi Peretz, a right wing, religious-nationalist (Chardal) rabbi and the new Minister of Education has undone some of the achievements of the past years.

“We’d managed to put the brakes on the process of Haredization of religious schools and the situation had stabilized about a year ago because of our efforts,” says Shmuel Shattach, NTA’s director. “But then Rafi Peretz came in and enabled the opening of a number of new private Chardal schools in September. Everyone knows this will ruin the public system. These schools can decide whom they will accept and who not. It’s more expensive and therefore the stronger population will send their children there and the problem we’d been fighting – of class-segregated religious schools – returns. The modern Orthodox send their children there not because they believe it’s the right way, but because it’s a way to get around integration.”

A survey NTA did this year asking the religious public about their stand on civil marriage in Israel points to another accomplishment.

“Ten years ago, the only people who favoured civil marriage were from the area of Meretz,” says Shmuel. “We were the first in the religious community to talk about it and everyone was against us. This year, the survey showed that just over 50 per cent of the national religious population favoured civil marriage.”

Shmuel sees a growing division between the Modern Orthodox and the Chardal population on issues of religion and state such as civil marriage, Shabbat, conversion and the Kotel and he is glad for it.

“Ideas that only a few religious people thought about a few years ago are today much more in the mainstream,” he says. “We gave legitimacy for religious people to think differently and to realize that religious freedom is actually good for Judaism. It’s the result of many years’ work.”

Another recent accomplishment: While this had never been done in the past, rabbis in some hospitals decided to be stricter and told the guards to ask guests coming in on Passover to leave any chametz they had on them in a special station set up for that purpose before entering the hospital. NTA approached a rabbi who wrote a halachic opinion saying it was permissible to bring chametz into a hospital and it wouldn’t affect the institution’s kashrut.

NTA also is fighting alongside a Jerusalem restaurant owner whose court case could transform religious people’s Shabbat experience by allowing kosher restaurants to open on Shabbat. With the help a lawyer affiliated with NTA, the restauranteur petitioned the Supreme Court asking it to order the Jerusalem rabbinate to allow him to keep his kashrut certificate even if he is open on Shabbat – the same as they do with hotels. The decision is pending.

While Shmuel and his organization are making serious inroads in the areas of liberal religious education and religion and state, much is still to be done. This year, a number of bills NTA worked on in the Knesset were put on hold because of the repeated elections.

“There are many unknowns in Israel at the moment because of the lack of a government and the ongoing coalition negotiations. If a liberal government is formed, we will have a short window of opportunity to make real change and we are working now to take advantage of that window. In the past, we had a similar window and we (liberal Orthodox organizations) failed, but we’ve learned lessons from that experience and are gearing up now. If such a window opens – for example if we have a unity government without the Haredim – it will be a huge opportunity to pass civil marriage – and we will be ready,” says Shmuel.

Shmuel points out that the solution they propose for civil marriage does not harm Judaism and even avoids halachic problems.

If he had additional funds, Shmuel says he wouldn’t change his work plan but would raise his staff’s salaries so they could work full time. Because NTA can only afford to pay part-time salaries, their spokespeople, for example, tend to take the job and use it as a jumping off point to full-time jobs. So NTA’s last three spokespeople are now the spokespeople of the Knesset, of MK Yoaz Hendel, and, ironically, of Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz.

Shmuel is grateful to the many donors who support NTA, but New Israel Fund of Canada holds a special place in his heart because its donation is “stable and consistent and gives us the opportunity to build our organization,” he says. “In order to build an organization you need the kind of funds NIF gives you – stable, sustainable support.”

Written and reported by Ruth Mason.

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