Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Alongside the development of the Reform and Conservative Movements, it is imperative to look at a parallel development in Israeli society, that of the Jewish renewal movement (Hitchadshut Yehudit) or New Israeli Judaism (the Hebrew term itself was coined by Panim in the 1990s). This movement began roughly at the same time as the arrival and establishment of the Reform and Conservative Movements, and reached a similar scope of a few thousand secular intellectual elites. According to Rachel Werczberger, an expert on the Jewish Renewal Movement, while the older secular Zionist “religion” made use of Jewish iconography, such as the flag, state seal, Hebrew calendar or various ceremonies to create a collective narrative and identity, the Hitchadshut Yehudit used these to achieve some form of personal meaning for its participants.

In their study on the Jewish Renewal Movement among Secular Israelis, scholars Werczberger and Na’ama Azulay, track the development of a new Jewish culture within secular Israeli society, identifying it as a new social movement (NSM) and conclude it is more than a passing trend.60

They posit that since the early 2000’s, secular Israeli society has been developing an active and renewed interest in Jewish culture replete with pluralistic study, prayer, life-cycle rituals, holiday events, social justice projects and more. A decade earlier, such events might have only attracted a few thousand participants at most, while by the mid-2000’s, they claim a few tens of thousands could be counted, and today even more.

They firmly connect this trend to the post-materialist development, described earlier. In the Israeli case, as older inherited cultural identities erode, individuals seek anchors for new, voluntary or intentional identities, and Jewish traditions and texts provide an anchor for this.

Werczberger and Azulay note four distinct and trackable stages in the development of Jewish Renewal as a social movement in Israel. In the first stage, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, a handful of secular intellectuals attempted to confront the Orthodox monopoly and engage in Jewish textual study. The second stage extended into the 1980’s as the movement grew with the formation of regular study groups, secular-religious dialogues and some of the organizations mentioned in this report, seeking to develop Judaism as a cultural heritage. The third phase, from the mid-1990’s through the mid-2000’s, grew and expanded beyond textual study, to include holiday and Shabbat observance; and to the “new age” spiritual dimension prevalent in other parts of the West. The fourth and current stage involves the institutionalization and stabilization of structures and activities, and has taken root with life-cycle events, the springing up of new organizations, and the achieved legitimacy for mostly secular Jews to experiment and reinterpret Jewish tradition while, at the same time, affirming it.

Key to this are processes that began in previous decades and whose effects are crystallizing and taking hold. Thus, the teaching and training of two generations of Israeli-born leaders, the gradual integration in the school system, the formation and stabilization of a unified terminology, and most importantly, a collaborative network of organizations and groups that exhibits some measure of political lobbying and legal activism. Although it has yet to attract mass numbers, it has developed deep-enough roots to make it more than a passing trend.