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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

According to the Israeli model of religious identity, “Hiloni” does not necessarily equate with “secular” or “atheist”, nor does it mean that Hiloni Israelis are uninterested in engaging with Jewish traditions or observing Jewish lifecycle events. Indeed, most Israelis who identified as “Reform” also identified as either “traditional” or “secular,” and most who identified as “Conservative” identify as “traditional” (as we will see later on), while few of either category identify as “religious.”

According to the Pew Israel study, 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in God. For example, according to JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism, 97 percent host or participate in a Passover Seder (vs. about 70 percent of American Jews who do so).41 The JPPI study also found that on average, 64 percent of all Israeli Jews, and a clear majority of all but the totally secular read the Haggadah all the way through during the Passover Seder.42

A 2009 IDI study revealed that Jewish traditions are highly important to most Jewish Israelis: 85 percent noted that celebrating Jewish holidays was important; 90 percent attend a Passover Seder; 82 percent light Hanukah candles; almost 70 percent refrain from eating hametz (leavened products) on Passover; and roughly, three-quarters keep some manner of kosher observance. Furthermore, over 94 percent of Israeli Jews consider circumcision important; over 90 percent sit shiva (the traditional mourning period); around 90 percent consider a bar or bat mitzvah for their children important; 86 percent consider Jewish burial important; 80 percent think being married by a rabbi is important; and over 70 percent consider the study of Jewish text important (although few actually do it).43

The 2015 Pew study found that 87 percent of Israelis who identified as secular host or attend a Passover Seder, and half of Israeli Jews light Shabbat candles. (See figure 7.)

Another 2016 survey from the Ne’manei Torah Va’avodah religious-Zionist organization, conducted by the Smith Institute, showed that half of self-identified secular Israelis felt close to religious tradition, over half fasted on Yom Kippur, 94 percent had ritual circumcision performed on their children, and 78 percent held a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony for their children.44 (See figure 8.)

What we cannot know from the data, and this is important to point out, is the rationale behind these behaviors. That is, whether those secular Jews who partake in Jewish traditions, occasionally attend a synagogue or conduct a lifecycle ceremony, do so out of a sense of tradition (“that’s just how it’s done”) or if there an added element of spirituality. If it were the former, then this would not be a consequential statistic rather a reflection of the fact that secular Israelis have always engaged with Jewish traditions to some extent. Data looking at Israelis on this does not exist before the 1990s, so we cannot know. However, if the motivation were (or also) of an individual spiritual fulfilment, it would constitute a sea change in the religiosity of secular Israelis (to be sure, the motivation behind the religious behavior of any individual, including Datiim and Harediim, is beyond the scope of this report).

The closest we can get to answering this question that in regard to Passover, JPPI’s Survey of Israeli Judaism found that about a quarter of respondents said they observe the tradition “because the Torah says so” while the rest responded that their observance was based on a mix of cultural, historical, and familial traditions.