Liberal Branches On Rise In Israel


Among secular Israeli Jews, the adage used to go: “The synagogue I don’t go to is Orthodox.” Now, according to a new study published this week, that synagogue is increasingly Reform or Conservative.

The study, published by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based independent policy think tank, found that 800,000 Israeli Jews — or 13 percent of the country’s Jewish population — self-identify as Reform or Conservative, a marked increase from numbers charted in previous studies. (A 2012 study by the Guttman Center on Israeli religiosity found that between 7 and 8 percent of Israeli Jews affiliated as Reform of Conservative.)The study also found that the number of Reform or Conservative communities throughout Israel has climbed to 125, 56 of which have permanent synagogues.  There are 280 rabbis affiliated with the movements nationally, with 85 of those working in a communal capacity.

According to the study’s author, Dan Feferman, a fellow at JPPI and a former policy analyst for the Israel Defense Forces, the increase indicates a “growing antipathy” towards the Orthodox religious establishment, and a “grassroots effort” to reclaim a Judaism that represents their pluralist values.

“These numbers indicate a resurgence of the need to reconnect to tradition and spirituality, and simultaneously the growing frustration with the institution of the Israeli rabbinate,” Feferman told The Jewish Week. “Thousands of Israelis are seeking a Judaism that speaks to a post-halachic worldview.”

And while the synagogue one does not attend may seem like a counterintuitive measure of success, he said the axiom, only half in jest, “captures something much deeper.”

“Israelis are increasingly viewing Reform and Conservative strains of Judaism as authentic, whereas 30 years ago, Orthodox Judaism was viewed as the only authentic way to practice Judaism,” he said.

The study’s findings come as the Israeli parliament, back from a short recess, sets out to confront a series of contentious legislative issues, including a new ultra-Orthodox conscription bill that, if not voted into law by the Supreme Court-imposed deadline of Dec. 2, could defunct thousands of army deferments for yeshiva students, leaving them eligible to be drafted into the IDF.

This, and other contentious issues that threaten to upend an already shaky coalition, brings to a head a “crisis” that has been brewing in the Israeli government for decades, said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan and a frequent critic of the “discrimination” faced by Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel; most recently, the Israeli government decided to back out of a pledge to expand a non-Orthodox prayer space at the Western Wall.

The newly released study, said Rabbi Hirsch, presents a bold opportunity for pluralistic denominations.

“There is a huge unrealized potential,” he said, an “historic” opportunity for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to strengthen their foothold in the Jewish state.

While attendance at Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel remains low — JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism found that 8 percent of participants reported to have visited a Conservative synagogue in the past year and 6 percent had visited a Reform synagogue, compared to 52 percent who had visited an Orthodox synagogue — the study indicated the Israelis are increasingly seeking out non-Orthodox options for life-cycle events, including bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

Gideon Aronoff, CEO of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, a nonprofit that works to build the Conservative movement in Israel, said that the movement towards employing non-Orthodox rabbis for life-cycle events shows “something of critical importance: Under the most adverse conditions possible — an ultra-Orthodox monopoly and millions of tax dollars going to build up Orthodox communities and institutions alone — Israelis are still tending towards more progressive options.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the trend unearthed by the new JPPI survey “affirms what we know on the ground: Israelis are turning to pluralist, egalitarian and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, changing what our understanding of Jewish life in Israel could be.”

Though many believe the “pluralism agenda” is driven by the North American Jewish community, Rabbi Jacobs says the study indicates that Israelis are the “real drivers” behind the trend.

Echoing Rabbi Jacobs’ statements, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, a working partner of URJ in Israel, said the new survey “proves” the increasing significance of liberal strains of Judaism as “a home to hundreds of thousands of families who are interested in both Israeli Judaism without barriers and in a connection with Jewish tradition from an egalitarian and pluralistic perspective.”

“Naturally, Reform Judaism in Israel is growing in unique patterns,” he said, noting that “synagogue membership” is neither a benchmark of success nor a sociological norm among Israelis. Still, he said, “despite all the political and legal obstacles,” liberal streams of Judaism are “determined” to continue strengthening the Israeli Jewish community.

We believe that if the 19th century was the European century of Reform Judaism, and if the 20th century was the American century of Reform Judaism, then the 21st century will be the Israeli century of Reform Judaism.

“We believe that if the 19th century was the European century of Reform Judaism, and if the 20th century was the American century of Reform Judaism, then the 21st century will be the Israeli century of Reform Judaism,” he said.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the report’s numbers speak to the “next iteration of the Jewish experience”— one that has “less to do with membership and institutional affiliation, and more with identity, relationships and relevance.”

“We have to move away from the paradigm that affiliation means membership,” he said. The same trend is reflected in the American-Jewish community, he said. “How do we connect with young Jews who want to affiliate and who are seeking meaning, but do not care to show up to synagogue?” he said. “That’s the question we are all facing, here and in Israel.”

And though, according to Rabbi Wernick, we’re in the “muck of change,” the indications towards growth, affiliation and engagement are heartening, despite tough odds. “Here and in Israel, we are moving towards a system of shared goals and values,” he said. “People will congregate around a compelling vision and mission. Our job is to make sure that vision unites the Israeli Jewish community and the diaspora, rather than bringing us further apart.”