Surveys of Israeli Jewish identity consistently show as many as 12-13 percent of Israeli Jews self-identify as Reform or Conservative. While conservative voices claim that the liberal religious movements have no place in Israel, that secular Israelis are “secular-Orthodox,” it is becoming difficult to ignore this emerging reality. The movements combined maintain 125 communities throughout Israel, 280 affiliated rabbis, 85 of them working in such capacities. Both have active rabbinic seminaries, youth movements, pre-army mechinot and three kibbutzim, with many more hosting “Reform-style” synagogues.
Yet the movements report only 12,000 registered adult members combined. Instead, the majority of these “Reform” and “Conservative” Jews are secular or traditional Israelis who engage with Jewish practice such as weddings (~1000/year), bar/bat mitzvahs (~3000/year), circumcisions and more (~1000/year) through the liberal alternatives, rather than traditional Orthodox Judaism.
To understand the emerging religious identity of secular and traditional Israelis, we suggest considering the following elements:
Synagogue membership plays a nominal role, as Israelis rarely “belong” to synagogues, and much of what the organized Jewish community provides abroad is provided instead by the state, school, or in the public space.
Most Hiloni1 Israelis are not detached from Judaism and engage with Jewish practice, holidays and life cycle events.
Those Hiloni Israelis who are turned off by the Orthodox establishment, are increasingly exposed to non-Orthodox alternatives through travel abroad and interaction with local Jewish communities, interactions with Diaspora Jews in Israel, and attendance of Reform or Conservative life-cycle events.
We propose that this amounts to a significant shift from the accepted paradigm for religious identity for secular and traditional Israelis. Historically, most Israeli Jews “didn’t attend Orthodox synagogues;” today, a growing number of secular and traditional Israelis now also “don’t attend Reform and Conservative synagogues,” and engage with the movements primarily for lifecycle events.
While this has not yet translated into Reform and Conservative movements with hundreds of thousands of committed followers, it could, realistically mean that in the near future as many as 20-30 percent of Hiloni and Masorati Israelis will prefer to “not attend” Reform and Conservative synagogues. This is already the case in Tel Aviv and other places around Israel.
Public attitudes toward the Reform and Conservative movements is generally positive: highest among Hiloni Israelis; mixed or neutral among Masorati Israelis; and negative among the Dati and Haredi population. A majority of Israeli Jews favor granting equal rights and recognition to the movements. That said, hostility from Orthodox and Haredi groups is significantly more intense than is the sympathy and support proffered by the secular and traditional public.
The Reform and Conservative movements, despite widespread criticism of the government and the religious establishment, have, in fact, significant room to operate in most respects, although much of this has been achieved through legal activism. Thus, today the only major issue with which the movements have no official rights is in the realm of marriage and divorce. They do have full or partial freedom in the area of conversion, access to the Kotel, access to the public education system, government funding for rabbis and synagogues, and burial. However, public funding is entirely disproportionately low with respect to what is granted the movements (a few millions) vs. Orthodox and Haredi groups (a few billions).
The unequal status of the movements in Israel is a point of contention between the Israeli government and many Diaspora Jews. There are significant parts of the government and the constituencies that they represent who are strongly opposed to the liberal movements and expressions of religious pluralism in general. At the same time, while there is wide support for these in the general public, this support is not afforded high importance and priority by the supporters themselves. Thus, policies favorable to the movements may find favor with the Diaspora but will cause domestic political damage, not gain.
Continued efforts by the Haredi parties to push legislation that would grant greater control to the Rabbinate and block the non-Orthodox movements (as well as modern-Orthodox), is driving many to bypass the Rabbinate altogether. Some of these efforts are led by Modern Orthodox elements in society as well as the Reform and Conservative movements. This could make the Rabbinate irrelevant to a significant segment of Jewish Israelis if this trend continues (marriage, kashrut supervision, conversion, etc.).
1 See Note to the Reader above