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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The explanation partly lies in the inapplicability of measuring the size of a religious movement in Israel with the membership approach commonly used in the United States and elsewhere. Although this approach might work in the Diaspora (although increasingly less so), it does not translate to Israeli society and the role that synagogue attendance and ritual observance play in people’s lives. While Orthodox Jews attend a synagogue on a daily or at least a weekly basis, the same is generally not true for those identifying as Reform and Conservative Jews, whose observance and connection to religion plays out in a different manner. Beyond that, even most Israeli Orthodox synagogues do not function on a membership model, rather they receive voluntary donations and sometimes some government support in the form of tax exemptions, publicly allocated land and partial funding for construction and maintenance.

The membership or “synagogue attendance” models work in the Diaspora because even if people do not attend a synagogue regularly, synagogue membership signifies active and deliberate affiliation with the Jewish community. In the Diaspora, the synagogue acts not only as a place of worship and celebration of life-cycle events, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a social and educational space.36

In Israel, synagogue membership does not necessarily signify broader community membership, since the country itself can be seen as “one big Jewish community center.” For religious and traditional Israelis, the synagogue is a place primarily for prayer and spiritual fulfillment. For Israeli Jewish society as a whole, and especially for secular Israelis, the synagogue is seen as a public service (provided by the state) for the occasional life cycle event, much like health care or education. In Israel, unlike the Diaspora, the national language is Hebrew, the national calendar and official holidays are Jewish, Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is taught in public schools, public institutions are kosher and Shabbat observant, and official government rabbis lead or participate in certain public ceremonies. Unlike the Diaspora, the public sphere in Israel is defined by its very Jewishness and non-religious Jews need not seek a separate Jewish sphere to maintain their Jewish identity.

Looking at regular synagogue attendance in Israel provides more relevant data. Participants in JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism37 were asked if they had “attended a synagogue in the last year.” Although some respondents gave more than one answer, the survey found that 32 percent of Israeli Jews had not visited any synagogue in the past year, 52 percent had visited an Orthodox synagogue, 8 percent had visited a Conservative synagogue,

6 percent had visited a Reform synagogue, 8 percent had visited a “secular synagogue” (such as Beit Tefila Yisraeli),38 and 3 percent visited an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue39. (See figure 6.)

JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism also found that 29 percent of Israeli Jews pray daily. Of the Orthodox, (a quarter of Israeli Jews) 62 percent pray daily. Twenty-seven percent of Conservative Jews, (5 percent of Israeli Jews) pray daily, and 17 percent of self-identified Reform Jews (8 percent of Israeli Jews) do so. Of those who do not identify with any stream,
8 percent pray daily.40

Another useful measure is participation in functions and events hosted by the movements. The Reform Movement estimates that roughly 120,000 Israelis attend Reform events (prayer, study, lectures, lifecycle events or holiday celebrations) at least four times a year. Similarly, the Conservative Movement estimates that roughly 200,000 Israelis attend Conservative Movement events at least four times a year.

This helps explain why the registered membership of the two denominations is not an accurate measurement of their size. However, it does little to explain how the various surveys found that hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews consider themselves Reform or Conservative. (To be sure, the number of people in the U.S. who self-identify as Reform or Conservative also exceeds the number of official members in each movement, just not by such a large margin.) To answer this, we need to look at a number of elements.