Matthew Wagner , THE JERUSALEM POST
Due to allegations of sexual impropriety, Kiryat Bialik's only state-salaried rabbi, appointed by the Chief Rabbinate, temporarily suspended himself recently while he launched his legal defense. In his absence, Rabbi Mauricio Balter has become the town's unofficial chief rabbi. On Yom Kippur, around 600 people attended the Kol Nidre prayer at his synagogue, and even more came for the concluding Ne'ila prayer.
He regularly teaches Judaism to kids at 10 different schools in the Kiryat Bialik area.
Balter is also a deeply committed Zionist. He travels periodically to South America to encourage Jews to make aliya.
Over the past 12 years, since he immigrated to Israel from Uruguay, Balter has personally overseen the arrival of over 500 families from South America, a quarter of whom have settled in Kiryat Bialik.
Balter trains boys and girls for bar and bat mitzva, answers halachic questions, gives classes in both Hebrew and Spanish, gives sermons in his synagogue, comforts the sick and eulogizes the deceased. In fact, Balter does everything that a rabbi employed by the state does and more.
Unlike rabbis representing the chief rabbinate, who receive their salaries from the state, Balter is supported by his community and by donors abroad. He also receives support from the Culture Department in Kiryat Bialik's municipality. He has an annual budget of NIS 600,000, 70 percent funded by Diaspora Jews, with which he runs a variety of philanthropic activities. His community regularly provides about 25 poor families with food. There is a storage room full of clothes for the needy. And there is even a special project that provides 85 IDF soldiers from the area with equipment not provided by the military.
However, unlike rabbis from the Chief Rabbinate, who are all Orthodox, Balter belongs to the Conservative (Masorti) Movement.
He is one of a handful of Reform and Conservative rabbis who are building communities and providing an alternative to the Orthodox monopoly over religious services. Without a functioning chief rabbi and boasting a predominantly secular population, Kiryat Bialik has become a testing ground for the success of non-Orthodox Judaism in a country that officially recognizes and funds only Orthodoxy and its representatives.
"I believe in free competition, and I am opposed to monopolies of any kind that stifle this competition," says Balter. "The state should not be funding religious services, and the Orthodox should not be allowed to monopolize them, either. People should be allowed to go to the rabbi of their choice from one of the recognized streams of Judaism."
BALTER'S TREMENDOUS success in Kiryat Bialik raises questions about the justification of such an Orthodox monopoly. Why should non-Orthodox tax-payers be forced to fund a stream of Judaism with which they do not identify? And why should a rabbi like Balter be prevented from receiving state funds just because he belongs to a non-Orthodox stream?
Religious Affairs Minister Ya'acov Margi, a member of the Sephardi haredi Shas party, rejects the possibility that a Conservative rabbi, no matter how popular, will receive state support.
"It's true that the official rabbi of Kiryat Bialik was removed," says Margi. "But that has nothing to do with the issue. Only rabbis that are ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel can serve. And that is what the law says. Imagine that the central committee of a synagogue in Jerusalem will certify an attorney because he is popular. Will he become an attorney?
"True, a rabbi has to be connected to the public. But popularity is not the factor that makes him fit to be a rabbi. There are a lot of celebrities who are very popular. But does that mean we should appoint them as rabbis?"
Balter's main Orthodox competitor in the Kiryat Bialik area is Rabbi Pinchas "Pini" Marton, a young, dynamic Chabad emissary, who has also succeeded in gaining the trust of the local population. And like Balter, he does not receive a salary from the state.
According to Karni Blass, head of the municipality's Culture Department, Marton has become a popular alternative to Balter and is very active among the residents.
"Rabbi Marton and Rabbi Balter are the city's two most popular rabbis," says Blass. "I personally prefer the gender egalitarian environment in Rabbi Balter's congregation. But there are a lot of people who are attracted to the more traditional approach presented by Rabbi Marton."
Marton, 29, says that he sees non-Orthodox streams of Judaism as a "disaster" for the future of Judaism.
"Reform endangers the continuity of the Jewish people," states Marton. "Today, here in Israel, there is a real problem with intermarriage just like in America. I visit classrooms, and many of the kids are not Jewish according to Halacha. The challenges I face in Kiryat Bialik are not unlike what Chabad shluchim [emissaries] face in the US."
Marton says he has received clear orders from Chabad leaders not to give legitimacy to any of Balter's activities by being present at ceremonies organized by the Conservative rabbi.
"How can I cooperate with something which I believe will bring a disaster on the Jewish people? Of course, every Jew is precious, whether he or she is Reform or Conservative, a rabbi or a layperson. On the individual level, I make no distinctions. To bring a Jew closer to Yiddishkeit I am willing to maintain ties with anyone, whether that person is a Reform rabbi or a member of a Conservative congregation. But I cannot attend activities organized by the Conservative Movement."
Balter responds, "It's too bad that Rabbi Marton does not understand that there are diverse ways of expressing Judaism. Even Chabad is a unique form of Jewish expression, radically different from, say, Satmar Hassidism. And I would say that Chabad's belief that the rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] is the messiah, even though he passed away years ago, is an even more radical reform in Jewish faith than Reform Judaism."
After the tragic, sudden death of a 40-year-old man who had ties to both the Conservative and the Chabad rabbis, Balter says, he attempted to work together with Marton on a funeral service. But in the end, Marton canceled at the last minute.
"I had some tough deliberations, because I have a good relationship with the family and I really wanted to be there," says Marton. "But I also could not attend a ceremony which might not be conducted in accordance with Halacha, because that would give it legitimacy. In the end, I conducted the 30th day memorial ceremony."
Balter says it is a shame that because of Chabad's ideology he and Marton cannot work together.
"Although I believe in free competition, that does not mean Rabbi Pini has to be antagonistic. There are a lot of things that we could accomplish together if we could join forces. In the end, both of us blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana and fast on Yom Kippur. We both celebrate Pessah and Hanukka. More things unite than divide us. I invite him to work together."
Meanwhile, the main ones to benefit from the stiff competition between Balter and Marton are the residents of Kiryat Bialik.
"Between Pini and Mauricio, I'd say Kiryat Bialik receives some of the best religious services and community-based welfare in the entire country," said Blass. "And both do it without receiving a salary from the state. We are lucky to have them both."
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