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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The movements were long viewed as foreign transplants, almost entirely as the domain of “quirky American immigrants” importing an “irrelevant product” to the Israeli mentality and social reality.

Israeli society, similar to other modernized societies, began shifting with respect to spirituality and religion at the end of the 20th century. As Israel modernized and enjoyed increasing economic prosperity – effectively joining the “first world” – a growing number of secular Jews began seeking more spiritual meaning and a reconnection to tradition. This was essentially the shift to post-materialist societies, which took place in Western Europe a few decades earlier.58

Within the Israeli context, this took the form of renewed interest in Jewish culture, ritual, history, and thought; for some, in the form of religious practice and spirituality. For a certain group of secular intellectual Israelis, this involved Jewish engagement outside of Orthodoxy. Perhaps, the “secular Zionist” religion so prevalent in the first generations of the state had lost some of its appeal as Israelis increasingly seek to discover what their parents or grandparents rejected – even if not in a strictly “Orthodox” sense. This trend is also reflected in the recent Rosner-Fuchs JPPI study on Israeli Judaism. We can draw a parallel to a similar process that took place among the million or so Soviet Jews, who were forcibly removed from Jewish practice for generations. Those who were young upon immigration, or the first generation born in Israel, were exposed, like native-born secular Israelis, to Jewish surroundings and practice for the first time.
This general process coincided with a sense among some secular Jewish elites that “their Judaism was being hijacked” by far-right wing religious “fanatics” (around the time of the Rabin assassination) and felt a need to reclaim their traditions. In addition, Israelis began to be exposed to Reform and Conservative Judaism through extended periods abroad and interaction with local Jewish communities. Parts of Israeli society decreasingly perceived the movements as less “authentic,” and perhaps as more relevant to their worldview.

Today, some practical aspects of the movements’ “Israeli” character differentiate them from their foreign origins. Beyond conducting services in Hebrew, Hebrew fluency provides closer philological interaction in apprehending texts than is possible for most American or other Diaspora Jews. Beyond the obvious, participants in Israeli Reform services are more likely to don a head covering and tallit – whereas in the U.S. it is less common (although changing). In addition, the “creative” and modern twists to the service are decidedly different – in Israel, they draw specifically from Israeli-Hebrew culture and literature as opposed to the American or other non-Jewish and non-Israeli Diaspora environments.

More substantively, the Israeli Reform movement (and most of the Reform congregations outside of America), unlike their American (and British) counterpart, does not recognize patrilineal descent. It will accept those of patrilineal descent for the sake of conducting a bar/bat mitzvah service, although it views this as a launching point for a longer-term relationship with the family that will lead to conversion. Although interfaith marriages are common in the American Reform Movement, the Israeli Reform Movement will not conduct marriage ceremonies for those of patrilineal descent who have yet to convert.59

Like their American counterparts, however, they do place a strong emphasis on social justice – the concept of Tikkun Olam – including reaching out to minorities and the under-privileged and supporting political and national level lobbying efforts to advance pluralism and equality across a range of issues. This is in part why, the Israeli Reform Movement maintains a powerful and activist lobbying arm, IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Center, which beyond advocating for the rights of the Reform and Conservative Movements, and on matters of religion and state, works on broader issues of social justice and individual freedoms. Similarly, the Conservative Movement operates Jewish Pluralism Watch, a watchdog organization that monitors matters of religion and state. (More on this in the section on Political Affiliation.)

Within the Israeli political context, these efforts and stances have positioned the movements in opposition to the current government coalition on a range of matters.