JPPI’s 2019 publication, Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, shows that as many as 13 percent (roughly 800,000) of Israeli Jews self-identify as Reform (8 percent) or Conservative (5 percent).1This number is slightly larger than, but in line with, a number of surveys conducted in recent years.2
At the same time, the report also showed that a combined 12,000 individual adults were registered, dues-paying members of 127 Reform and Conservative communities in Israel. There is a significant discrepancy between the number of those who identify with these movements and actual membership statistics. One explanation of this gap is the growing number of Israelis who participate in life cycle events conducted by Reform or Conservative rabbis.
JPPI’s study of Israeli Judaism 3, which was based on a comprehensive survey conducted by Prof. Camil Fuchs found that most Israelis who identify as Reform or Conservative do so while concurrently identifying as secular or traditional, and do not view themselves as religious. Thus, JPPI concluded that their affiliation model is one of low commitment and not a defining element of their identity.
The study concluded that: “Israeli Jews who identify with the movements, beyond the few thousand registered hard-core members, hold a generally loose association that is likely as much political statement against the Orthodox and Rabbinate as it is a positive statement about their own identity.”4
We offer here a brief and complementary take regarding the identities of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, based on new findings. In May 2019, JPPI presented new data as part of its annual Pluralism Index.5 This 2019 survey focused on around 600 of the roughly 2000 individuals who had participated in the previous 2018 JPPI study (Israeli Judaism), which also served as the basis for the Rising Streams study.
In this follow-up survey, we saw that of those who identified in the 2018 study as Reform, only 13 percent subsequently identified as Reform.
A small portion (8 percent) this time identified as Conservative, an even smaller portion (4 percent) identified as Orthodox, and the majority (75 percent) identified as non-denominational. Of those who identified in 2018 as Conservative, only a third (33 percent) did so in 2019, while a third (33 percent) identified as Orthodox and a third (33 percent) identified with no denomination.
Adding another element to determine identity, the 2019 survey included the question: “How do you define yourself religiously?” It offered respondents seven options: totally secular, secular traditional, traditional, liberal religious, 6 religious, nationalist Haredi or Haredi. Immediately following that question, respondents were asked: “Again, how do you define yourself religiously? Please pay attention as there are now more options” and the options of Reform and Conservative Judaism were added to the seven options for a total of nine.
Only 1.1 percent of “secular” respondents changed their initial response to Reform or Conservative in the second question. That is, only three out of 322 secular respondents preferred the designation “Reform” to secular. Among the 257 respondents who identified initially as secular traditional, traditional, or liberal religious, four switched their response to Conservative in the second question. Overall, these results suggest that only a marginal number of Israelis consider Reform and Conservative Judaism as the main signifier of their religiosity. A 2019 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey had a similar finding. It listed “Reform” as a possible answer to the question: “How do you define yourself religiously?” Only 0.6 percent of respondents chose this option.
Between the two surveys conducted by JPPI within the course of a year, respondents had four opportunities to express their identities as Reform Jews – two questions from the Israeli Judaism survey (2018) and two questions from the Pluralism survey (2019). In the former respondents were asked: “If you go to synagogue, which type of synagogue do you attend (meaning when you go not as a guest to a wedding or bar mitzvah of somebody else).” And, “From the following options, check all the boxes you feel describe you.” For both questions respondents could choose from a multiple-option menu that included “Reform” and “Conservative”. In the 2019 Pluralism survey, along with the question described above regarding religiosity, respondents were also asked: “Which stream in Judaism do you see yourself belonging to?” (only one option could be chosen).
Of all the individuals surveyed (600 partook in both surveys and answered all four questions), not a single respondent chose “Reform” to answer all of the four questions offering this option.
Figure 1 shows the various combinations of respondent answers vis-a-vis Reform Judaism. Overall, 42 of 672 respondents (6.25 percent) positively associated themselves with Reform Judaism in one of the questions. Of those respondents, roughly 75 percent indicated they are Reform in only one of the four questions.
Even if one assumes a sampling error influenced these findings (the sample size was relatively small), statistical error alone cannot explain the obvious inconsistences described above. Rather, perhaps even more than we originally thought, identification with Reform Judaism (and to a lesser degree Conservative Judaism) in Israel is a fluid, loosely defined construct. Among a majority of those who identified, at one point or another, as Reform or Conservative, we can more clearly see that these associations are not strong expressions of high levels of commitment or identification.
This is not, we should add, a purely academic matter. It could have a significant impact on the Israeli government’s decision making, and prioritization of resources. It may also have implications for leaders and philanthropists in North American Jewish communities.
And yet, even though many Israelis are not identifying strongly with the non-Orthodox denominations, the anti-Orthodox sentiment, along with a preference for a post-Halachic or non-Halachic Judaism, is evident among a growing segment of the population. This trend will continue to influence the number of those who turn to Israel’s non-Orthodox communities to receive religious services, especially among those who consider themselves secular.