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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

Israel’s public education system is comprised of three main tributaries, the Jewish-secular (Mamlachti), Jewish-national-religious (Mamlachti-Dati), and the Arab. The private parochial system in Israel includes the Haredi as well as the Christian schools, and receives considerable government subsidies.

As noted, the Reform Movement maintains five public schools, and conducts activities in 10 public schools in Tel Aviv and 100 public schools nation-wide to help prepare 6th graders for their bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, Jewish holidays, and other life-cycle events. The movement estimates it reaches 7000 students annually in this manner and receives public funding for these efforts. This is alongside the dozens of pre-school and kindergartens run by the movement.

The Conservative Movement works according to a different model and does not operate individual schools. However, the TALI (acronym in Hebrew for Enhanced Jewish Studies) system was founded by members of the Conservative Movement although was soon after officially disaffiliated from the movement in order to gain recognition and funding from the Education Ministry; its founders recognized that affiliation with the Conservative Movement would prohibit Dati and Haredi support, and certainly draw active opposition. The Conservative Movement has for the past 25 years run a bar/bat mitzvah program for special education students in the public-school system. Through this program, roughly 200 special needs students each year have bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies, something they would not normally be able to do in an Orthodox framework.

Although the movements themselves have limited direct activity in the schools, pluralistic Jewish education organizations are commonplace and active within the secular public system. These efforts date back to 1990s and are the results of a government commission (the Shenhar Commission) which examined the state of Jewish cultural education in the public-school system. The commission found that secular Jewish students were lacking in basic knowledge of Jewish history, culture, and basic texts.176 Therefore, over the years, beginning under Education Minister Limor Livnat and later Gideon Sa’ar, additional classroom hours were added for Jewish education. Later, under Minister Shai Piron and finally under the current Minister Naftali Bennet, a comprehensive Jewish studies curriculum that spans through elementary and middle school was devised and implemented. Curriculum design and textbook production were undertaken by several NGOs, the majority of which are pluralistic or secular in their approach to Judaism.

While these efforts have been taking place on the grassroots level for decades, there were efforts to officially create a third educational “stream,” an inclusive system that would bring together secular, traditional, and religious Israelis, and incorporate Jewish texts, values and learning in a pluralistic manner. This passed in the Knesset in 2008, and while never implemented officially, in practice there is today such a third stream that will soon include around 40 schools.

According to Yuval Seri, who oversees Israeli Jewish culture for the secular school system in the Education Ministry, there is a vision and policy within the ministry to encourage increased learning of and exposure to Jewish texts and traditions from a cultural and intellectual perspective. The Education Ministry works through several Jewish Renewal organizations, including granting them funding and approving curricula, who then work directly within the school system. Seri notes, as far as he is concerned, these organizations are fully a part of the education system.

There are essentially two ways Jewish studies are taught in the Mamlachti school system, one works under the Department for Jewish Heritage and the other for Jewish Culture within the Education Ministry. According to Panim, the Jewish Heritage Department is professional in its approach and contracts primarily with pluralistic Jewish education organizations, while the Jewish Culture Department is more politicized and often contracts with Orthodox organizations. The Jewish Heritage Department works in a more pedagogical and methodical manner, in developing curriculum, writing textbooks and providing long-term teacher training.

The major organizations working directly with the Education Ministry according to a matching funding model are Tali, The Hartman Institute’s Be’eri program, Maarag – KIAH and Orot – the only one of the four that is not pluralistic according to Panim. These organizations receive anywhere from NIS 1 to 5 million shekels in Education Ministry funding each year.

Seri added that beyond curriculum, the Education Ministry works with 35 organizations involved in Jewish Renewal, including the Reform and Conservative Movements, which provide an array of 281 extra-curricular enrichment activities, generally focusing on particular holidays or lifecycle events. Most of these organizations and activities are pluralistic. Individual principals can choose to enlist such programs at their own discretion and receive a subsidy from the Education Ministry.

In addition to the schools with enhanced Jewish (mostly pluralistic) education, there are 34, soon to be 40, schools working on an “integrated” third model that are neither secular nor religious. These programs are run by Meitarim and Tzav Pius, pluralistic Jewish education groups that promote the integrated approach. These are schools that were either previously secular (mostly) or religious, where enough parents ask to transition to the new model, or new schools started at the kindergarten level that grew organically.

Panim’s research points out that most of the pluralistic organizations utilize a deeper model of effecting change, through building up the school’s existing teachers and textbook development. According to them, the Education Ministry’s professional echelon much prefers this pedagogical model. Despite this, they claim that through various funding channels, and perhaps due to the politically appointed positions currently within the ministry, Orthodox organizations that provide direct student programming (which they claim are less successful) receive more funding.

When JPPI asked Panim to assess the level and scope of pluralistic Jewish education in the secular school system, Panim estimated that over 25 percent of public-schools (out of roughly 1300 secular primary schools) have implemented multi-year teacher training programs and have on-site Jewish education coordinators. Moreover, the entire secular school system uses Jewish studies textbooks written primarily by pluralistic or secular organizations. Beyond this, there are nearly 40 schools working with an integrated secular-religious model.


Several initiatives have been operating within the system for decades. It is important to note that for the organizations interviewed for this report, all stressed that the demand for additional Jewish, non-Orthodox education in the secular school system is bottom-up, as demanded by parents, schools or municipalities. All information is self-reported.

The TALI system provides enriched Jewish studies in 110 elementary schools and 215 pre-schools around the country (12 percent of public schools). It has also recently begun working with two high schools and three middle schools. TALI was originally founded by the Conservative Movement although is no longer officially affiliated with it. This program reaches 45,000 students each year and receives 6 to 7 percent of its NIS 13 million budget from the Israeli Education Ministry. The majority of its budget is funded by American philanthropy, including the American Conservative Movement; the Israeli Conservative Movement provides 12 percent of its funding.

TALI works to develop and provide pedagogical training and curriculum development for the schools’ teachers and pedagogical training. Individual schools or municipalities seeking to improve and increase their Jewish educational programming approach TALI, who then provides a four to five year training program for that school or city’s teachers. The idea is that by the end of the training, the teachers themselves will self-sufficiently deliver Jewish education to their students. To date, 6,000 public school teachers have received such training.177
Meitraim is the main organization operating the “integrated” school model, inspired by the rabbi and former Knesset Member Michael Malchior. Since 2000, it has sought to offer “religiously pluralistic, coeducational frameworks in which students from different backgrounds learn together about their common Jewish heritage,” According to Ranit Hyman, who heads the organization. The program currently operates in 80 institutions (40 kindergartens, 22 elementary schools, 13 middle and high schools and 5 post-high schools), reaching 6,700 students. Meitraim has an annual budget of NIS 5 million, all of which is funded by private donors.178

According to Hyman, Meitram seeks to correct one of Israel’s “original sins” whereby the secular and religious school systems were divided – leaving secular students ignorant in religious studies and religious students ignorant in secular studies. She noted that until now, Meitarim has worked completely through private funding, but now that it has proved its success and worth, it sought and will soon receive some government funding.

Oranim, based at the Oranim teachers’ college in northern Israel, is another program that has provided educational training and programming since the 1990s. According to its educational director, Ilana Abu Golan, Oranim writes and publishes books and designs programs for the Education Ministry and prepares and trains teachers as well.179 Since Oranim is associated with an accredited college, the training is recognized by the Education Ministry. It develops the Jewish education, Zionism, and civics curricula for the Education Ministry in a number of municipalities in the north. It is currently working with the schools of Kiryat Tivon, Kiryat Ata, and Mateh Asher.180

While Oranim also works directly with students, their prime impact is in teacher training, which they believe to be the most effective model to implement change. Abu Golan estimates that 100-200 teachers undergo Oranim’s training and accreditation annually, and cooperates with a number of similar pluralistic educational programs around the country.181

The Be’eri program of the Shalom Hartman Institute operates in Israeli secondary public schools. Be’eri works to provide pluralistic Jewish education and values in 132 middle and high schools throughout the country and 10 municipalities have adopted the program as their educational platform for Jewish-Israeli culture. The program has also recently begun cooperation with the Israeli Scouts movement. It works, like TALI, by educating and training teachers and is supported in part by the Education Ministry.182