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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The old model, whereby the authentic Judaism with which most Israelis occasionally engaged (the synagogue they “did not attend”) was Orthodox, is no longer completely reflective of how secular and traditional Israelis engage with Judaism. The 2013 IDI study showed a significant overlap in identities, i.e. that the majority (67 percent) of those who identified as Conservative also defined themselves as “Masorti”, while those identified as Reform were largely split (41 and 41 percent) between also defining themselves as Hiloni or Masorti. Only a few percentage points (10 on some surveys, and as low as 1 or 2 on others) of both those who identified as Reform and Conservative Jews self-identified as “Dati.” Recall that in Hebrew, when asked if Dati, the question is literally inquiring whether one is religiously observant and does not necessarily refer to whether one is Orthodox (or Reform, or Conservative), although that is almost always assumed.63

From a different angle, the recent Reform Movement study (not yet published) showed that 11 percent of Hilonim and 8 percent of Masortiim identify as Reform – while 3 percent of Hilonim and 9 percent of Masortiim identify as Conservative.

Thus, the traditional model for Israeli religious identity could be described as a unitary spectrum from Hiloni, through Masorti, Dati and Haredi – all based in terms of Orthodox Judaism, and various levels of intensity in practicing that Judaism.

The new model proposed does not presume a unitary relationship with differing intensity to Orthodox Judaism; rather, it allows for multi-dimensional relations and overlapping identities to exist. Thus, someone can be Hiloni but prefer to conduct their lifecycle events in a Reform or Conservative context or under Orthodox auspices as in the past (or not at all). Some consider themselves Masorti and prefer to engage with Jewish practice in Conservative or Reform synagogues, etc. There are even a small number (a few percent) of Reform and Conservative Jews who consider themselves religious, or Dati.

Of course, while a growing number of secular and traditional Israelis now see the non-Orthodox denominations as authentic and legitimate, many Hiloni and certainly most Masorti Israelis prefer to identify as “Israeli-Jews,” or continue to view Orthodox Judaism as the only legitimate form, or prefer no Jewish engagement whatsoever. For the most part, and at least for now, most Hiloni and Masorti Israelis still marry through the rabbinate or in civil ceremonies abroad, are buried in traditional cemeteries, and conduct their children’s bar mitzvah in the local Orthodox synagogue, or in no synagogue (usually in an event hall only).

Reform and Conservative leaders (such as Kariv and Hess, interviewed for this study) acknowledged this reality and said they do not envision hundreds of thousands of Israelis becoming actively Reform or Conservative in the religious sense. Rather, they seek to form, beyond a hard core of engaged and active individuals, the option of pluralistic Reform and Conservative Judaism standing equally alongside Orthodox Judaism for the mostly secular or traditional Israeli society for lifecycle events, public Jewish ceremonies, supplementary Jewish education, and more. Rabbi Meir Azari, who heads the Reform Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, pointed out that among secular Israelis in Tel Aviv, Reform Jewish institutions might even be more acceptable for such expressions than Orthodox ones are today. In this sense, it is not outlandish to consider a future where as many as 20-30 percent of secular and traditional Israeli Jews prefer to engage with Jewish practice in this new manner.

To summarize, while for many secular and traditional Israeli Jews, the “synagogue they don’t attend”, i.e., the Judaism they see as authentic and normative even though they are not observant, is still either Orthodox or none at all, this can no longer be said for all Israelis. Today, a significant and growing number now also “don’t attend” Reform and Conservative synagogues. In other words, the normative form of Judaism through which they express and engage with Jewish practice is no longer limited to Orthodoxy, and is increasingly expressed through the Reform and Conservative denominations as legitimate and authentic alternatives.