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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The Reform and Conservative Movements’ history in Israel began only a few decades after Israel’s establishment. Israel’s founders were, for the most part, staunchly secular – Orthodox. In Mandatory Palestine and during the formative years of Israel’s national identity and institutions, the only Jews representing religious practice in Israel were the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox, primarily from Eastern Europe. When the Jews from the Middle East and Muslim world immigrated en-masse in the 1950’s– they, similarly, brought no tradition of secularism or religious modernization.

Determining the Jewish nature of the nascent state was not a priority for the first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. However, when, Ben-Gurion decided, for pragmatic coalitional purposes, to strike deals with the religious parties regarding matters such as Shabbat, kashrut, weddings, conversions, and burials, etc., there were no alternatives to Orthodox Judaism in the Israeli reality – neither practically nor conceptually. Most segments of society accepted Orthodox Judaism as the “authentic” Judaism, even those who found it problematic.

Reform and Conservative Judaism, as movements that flourished in America, began germinating in Israel only in the 1960s – conveyed primarily by American immigrants. Prior to that, there was a limited presence in Israel, such as the Leo Baeck Reform high school in Haifa, along with small Reform and Conservative communities in Jerusalem. (This was partly due to the frequent exchange of notable Jewish Studies scholars between the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Conservative Movement’s seminary in New York and the Hebrew University, the two preeminent departments of classical Jewish studies at the time.)

In 1962, the Hebrew Union College (HRC), the Reform Movement’s rabbinical seminary, opened a campus in Jerusalem. In 1964, the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), officially formed, and in 1973, the World Union for Progressive Judaism moved its headquarters to Jerusalem. Throughout the 1970s, there were only six small congregations in Israel, whose rabbis and majorities of congregants were American expatriates.54

The Reform movement began to take root in Israel in the 1980s – it ordained its first Israeli-born rabbi in 198055 (HUC ordained its 100th Israeli rabbi in November 2017), began developing a deeper infrastructure, founded the Israel Religious Action Center in 1987 (its political and legal activist arm – more on this later), and expanded its presence around the country.

Similarly, in 1984, the Israeli Masorti Movement opened the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, and began ordaining rabbis in 1988.

It has since ordained 92 rabbis who operate in Israel and abroad.56

In 1986, both the Reform and Conservative Movements received a major funding boost from American Jewish philanthropies and the Jewish Agency for Israel.57
Today, as noted, the two movements maintain a network of communities and synagogues, rabbis, rabbinical seminaries, youth movements, pre-military academies, and kibbutzim.