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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

We initially set out to determine the nature, scope, and legal status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, specifically the largest and most organized movements – the Reform and Conservative Movements. As is evident in the previous sections of this paper, the movements certainly exist, are active, growing and have a small but widespread and stable infrastructure –
replete with synagogues, rabbis and a rabbinical seminary, youth movements, and more.

Yet, the movements, in a narrow sense, have not succeeded in attracting a large dedicated following – roughly 12,000 registered, committed, dues-paying adult members who seek the liberal religiosity the movements provide, as noted previously.

This is puzzling when juxtaposed with the range of recent studies that show as few as 5 percent many as 13 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as either Reform or Conservative, and when the movements self-report a few hundred thousand Jewish Israelis attend (at least 4 times a year) their programing – from prayer to lectures to cultural events, including and primarily life cycle events. Tel Aviv, Modiin, Haifa, Ra’anana, and Jerusalem are home to large, active and well-organized Reform and Conservative communities. It might not even be far-fetched to surmise that in Tel Aviv, Reform Judaism is as predominant as Orthodoxy, if not more so, among the largely secular public.

At the same time, most of these 5 to 13 percent identifying as Reform or Conservative simultaneously identify as secular or traditional – not “religious.” This leads to a conclusion that their affiliation model is one of low commitment and not a defining element of their identity.

The non-Orthodox movements as movements have not taken hold in Israel as they have in the Diaspora, especially North America, where communities and Jewish identity are voluntary, and for the most part involve official membership. To contrast, In North America, the largest Diaspora community, Reform or Conservative Judaism are the normative options for secular Jews who seek to maintain an active Jewish identity and community. This means that the form of Jewish practice seen as “authentic” for most American Jews is either Reform or Conservative. The majority of Reform or Conservative Jews in the U.S., in this sense, would likely be Hiloni or Masorti the Israeli context.

What this amounts to is the emergence of a new Israeli Jewish identity, liberal and pluralistic by nature, which is achieving a level of “authenticity” in Israeli society, and gaining legitimacy as a normative Jewish identity for mostly non-observant Israeli Jews. This new Judaism is markedly different, however, from the organized Diaspora forms of Reform and Conservative Judaism. It has many influences and lines often blur – from the early secular Zionism to traditional (Orthodox) Judaism, primarily the more pragmatic and traditional forms practiced by Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, new age mystical Chassidic thought and secular intellectual Judaism. It has also been shaped by the Reform and Conservative Movements, who pioneered such alternative practice and introduced it to Israel, have actively challenged the existing model, and who offer the physical framework and infrastructure necessary to bring it to a broader segment of Israeli society. It may also be that as of late, this new Judaism is influenced by and influences the more liberal and creative reaches of Modern Orthodoxy.

Perhaps, as writer Liam Hoare suggests, “Despite their failure to grab hold of the Israeli public consciousness, however, Reform and Conservative Judaism have not completely failed in influencing Israeli society.” {Interviewing Yossi Klein Halevi, he noted.} “I see their historic role in Israel as acting as catalysts and as incubators for indigenous forms of non-Orthodox Judaism that haven’t yet emerged and don’t yet have a name, but will all at least owe part of their existence to these Diaspora imports.”61

One of the effects indeed has been the slow erosion (not the shattering some had hoped to achieve) of the “Hiloni, Masorti, Dati, Haredi” divide into something non-denominational and amorphous in which all but the fiercely Orthodox, including liberal Orthodox and most secular Jews, live on a fluid spectrum of Israeli Jewishness, which spans from culture to religion, tradition to new age, and atheism to deep spirituality. The pluralistic and egalitarian direction is clear and the cocoon of living in a mostly Jewish state and knowing Hebrew (which affords direct access to texts) allows connection and exploration along this spectrum without the threat of assimilation into a non-Jewish society.

In this reality, the Reform and Conservative Movements offer a nation-wide infrastructure, which has enabled them to establish themselves as the largest (although not the only) provider of lifecycle event services for Israel’s largely Hiloni and Masorti public.

Thus, if Hoare and Klein Halevy posit that this new Judaism developing in Israel points to the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism to catch on, we suggest that it only shows the failure of a Reform and Conservative Judaism in the organized Diaspora format. Rather, what we are observing is the development of such liberal forms of Judaism in Israel, and it should not come as a surprise that they take on a distinctly Israeli form.

That said, Reform and Conservative leaders interviewed for the sake of this research argue that massive government subsidies and the legal monopoly held by the Orthodox on some issues create an unfair playing field that favors the Orthodox. Were the field leveled, and there was “more than one product on the shelf,” as per IRAC head Anat Hoffman, things might be different, and Orthodoxy itself would likely adapt and change and remain more relevant and attractive.62

Perhaps though, this Orthodox monopoly is driving a growing number of Hiloni and Masorti Israelis away from the “religious establishment” and into the arms of the alternative movements.