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Do More Israelis Identify with Reform Than Orthodox?

June 7, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Is it possible that more Israeli Jews identify with Reform Judaism than Orthodox?

According to a new poll commissioned by the Reform movement’s ARZA World Union, the answer is yes.

But critics say the poll, conducted by the independent Israeli firm, Dahaf, obtained misleading results by asking the wrong questions.

For those seeking official recognition of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel, the poll’s second finding may ultimately be more significant: 56 percent of Israelis support the government giving the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism funding equal to what Orthodox institutions receive.

That would be a dramatic departure from the status quo. According to the ARZA poll, which surveyed 499 Israeli Jews:

35 percent of Israeli Jews identify most with Reform Judaism, 29 percent with Orthodox and 13 percent with Conservative Judaism;

13 percent said they do not identify with any religious stream of Judaism, and 7 percent said they don’t know about the different streams;

Among non-Orthodox Jews who describe themselves as “hiloni,” or secular. ???1 percent said they identify most with Reform Judaism; and

Among non-Orthodox Jews who describe themselves as “masorti,” or traditional, 27 percent identify most with Reform Judaism.

ARZA does not have comparative data from previous years, but says the results mark a dramatic change from conventional wisdom in the past, when most non- Orthodox Israelis were believed to identify simply as not religious and few had heard of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

ARZA is reading the new poll results as a sign that the Reform movement’s efforts in Israel are working.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of alternative religious expression,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the New York-based ARZA. “More and more people are being serviced through our schools, life-cycle events and institutions.”

Both the Reform and Conservative movements have invested heavily in Israel in the past decade, putting money into their religious institutions, political advocacy to get equal recognition under Israeli law and marketing campaigns.

An advertisement the two movements collaborated on last fall showed a multicolored Star of David with the words, “There’s more than one way to be Jewish.”

Hirsch credits the seemingly increased level of identification with Reform Judaism to “more positive attention being bestowed on us by the good works that we do,” as well as widespread alienation from Orthodox Judaism.

“How is a sane Israeli to react to the ultra-Orthodox saying a woman should be imprisoned seven years for wearing a tallit?” he asked, referring to a law recently proposed by the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party that would penalize women for wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah at the Western Wall.

But others, even in the Conservative movement, are more skeptical of the poll, with some saying it forces people to choose to identify with a religious stream even if they don’t make that choice in their life.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the New York-based United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said there is a difference between “identifying” in the abstract sense and actually affiliating with a movement.

“What do these hypothetical questions mean?” he asked. “How many know what Reform, Conservative and Orthodox really are?”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said, “There’s a large problem here of definition of terms.”

Citing the 1992 Guttman Report, a survey that found relatively high levels of religious observance among Israeli Jews, Shafran said, “It’s pretty well-known that the vast majority of Israelis are tradition-minded.”

That study found that 70 percent of Israelis keep kosher homes and 56 percent always light Sabbath candles, according to Shafran.

In the ARZA poll, the average Israeli “doesn’t know what’s being asked of him,” said Shafran.

“He probably sees it as `Are you haredi or not?’ and he’s not,” Shafran said, using the term for the fervently Orthodox.

“If the average traditional Israeli would be apprised of what those movements endorse here in the U.S., he would be aghast and would give a very different answer.”

The same goes for the answers on equal funding data, said Shafran, adding that Israelis support the concept of equality but don’t know what the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism really stand for.

“I think they’re taking advantage of the ignorance of the Israeli public. The movements in Israel don’t reveal what their motherships in the U.S. do,” he said, referring to such policies as acceptance of homosexuals and permitting driving on Shabbat.

But Epstein of the United Synagogue said the data showing support for funding the non-Orthodox streams was a “really wonderful step for us.”

Reform and Conservative leaders say their synagogues and schools receive very little public funding in Israel compared to Orthodox institutions, even when adjusting for the fact that far fewer Israelis attend Reform and Conservative institutions than Orthodox ones.

“If these people will eventually vote that way, that shows a tremendous turn in the tide in public sentiment,” Epstein said, adding, “I think that’s a demonstration that our public relations effort is really beginning to pay off.”

CORRECTION: The story on the restoration of a synagogue in Terezin sent Sunday misidentified one of the people quoted four grafs from the bottom. He is Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. The graf should read:

American Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, writing in the New York Jewish Week after a visit to the synagogue, described it as “an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.”

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