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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Matters of religion and state, and specifically the status of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel, have featured prominently in the context of secular-religious and Israel-Diaspora relations in recent years.
In JPPI’s 2017 Annual Assessment, we noted, “The Israeli government decision on June 25, 2017, to freeze the Western Wall (Kotel) agreement and advance a conversion bill was dramatic, as were the responses from Jewish leaders and organizations in the United States, Israel and other countries.”2

Similarly, in the 2016 Annual Assessment, we observed that, “One of the ongoing sticking points in Israel-Diaspora relations is the disconnect between Israel’s Jewish-Israeli public space and the expectations of some Jewish communities throughout the world. Non-Israeli Jews (and quite a few Israelis) complain of the lack of Jewish ‘pluralism’ in Israel. They mainly refer to the fact that Orthodox Judaism in Israel is accorded superior status to that of other Jewish denominations.3

Likewise, in the 2015 Annual Assessment, we wrote, “Internal Israeli developments also influenced Israel-Diaspora relations. The new government… is moving in a direction that many of the world’s Jews (especially in the U.S.) do not endorse. …especially in regard to religion and state matters.4

Activists who advance pluralistic Judaism in Israel often claim that the Orthodox monopoly over government institutions and budgets essentially bars the progressive Jewish movements, specifically the Reform and Conservative Movements, from expanding in Israeli society and reaching new audiences. Opponents and skeptics argue that this is hardly the case, and that Israeli society is simply not interested in alternative liberal brands of Judaism. From time to time, polls and surveys are published, some with an ideological skew, framing the research to exaggerate or minimize these movements in Israel. The passionate and increasing involvement of American Jewish organizations in this debate adds another element of complexity as American Jewry is largely liberal and approaches the subject from the American perspective of separation of church and state and, voluntary synagogue membership and organized religious movements. The warnings from the American Jewish community, 50 percent of which is either Reform or Conservative (and many more who are unaffiliated but identify with them), are also growing louder. They assert that Israel’s religious policies are alienating American Jews, and Israel risks losing their critical support if it continues down its current path of exclusionary religious policies. (For examples, see the following articles linked in the endnote.)5

Considering these trends, this paper seeks to examine the state of the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel, including:

  • The Reform and Conservative Movements in Israeli society;
  • The infrastructure and scope of activities of the Reform and Conservative Movements;
  • The formation of a new, non-Orthodox Israeli Jewish identity;
  • Israeli attitudes toward the Reform and Conservative Movements, religious pluralism and matters of religion and state;
  • The legal status of the non-Orthodox movements across a range of practical issues, including marriage and divorce, conversion, burial, access to the education system and funding for rabbis, synagogue construction and more.