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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The first section of this report seeks to determine how many Reform and Conservative Jews there are in Israel. This is no simple task as it is not clear how to measure this in the Israeli context. In the U.S., the standard-bearer is synagogue membership, while estimates are based on self-declaration in surveys. In smaller Diaspora communities, surveys are occasionally conducted by community organizations, or based on the number of Jews eligible for social services. In Israel, it might be synagogue attendance but not membership, as the model and structure differ; that is, Israelis rarely “belong” to a synagogue, rather, at best, attend (and donate to) a close-by synagogue of their preference with varying degrees of frequency. However, we know that Reform and Conservative Jews, by nature, do not attend synagogue for the sake of regular prayer as much as do Orthodox Jews, so this might not work either.

Before we delve into the numbers, it is useful to examine general demographic and statistical breakdowns of Israeli society today. On the eve of Israel’s 70th anniversary (as of April 2018), Israel’s population stood at 8.84 million citizens, 75 percent of whom are Jewish.6, 7

According to JPPI’s survey of Jewish pluralism in Israel, among Israel’s 6.5 million Jews, 34.8 percent of the representative sample identified themselves Totally Secular (Hiloni), 22.1 percent as Secular – Traditional (Hiloni-Masorti), 18.6 percent as Traditional (Masorti), 2.5 percent as Liberal – Religious (Dati-Liberali),8 9.9 percent as Religious (Dati), 1 percent Nationalist – Haredi (Haredi-Leumi), and 9.1 percent as Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). 9(See figure 1.)

This is comparable to the Pew data, (9 percent Haredi, 13 percent Dati, 29 percent Masorti and 49 percent Hiloni), and other surveys conducted in recent years.10 The same Pew study, one of the more extensive in recent years, asked respondents with which religious stream they identify, if any, and 3 and 2 percent respectively, answered they identify as Reform or Conservative Jews. Meaning that according to Pew, 5 percent of Israeli Jews, or 325,000 people, identify as Reform or Conservative.

For the Pew researchers, coming from an American context, and for many in the American Jewish community, these numbers might seem small. As a point of comparison, among American Jews, the most significant community outside of Israel – 35 percent consider themselves Reform, 18 percent Conservative, 30 percent non-denominational and 10 percent Orthodox (6 percent Ultra-Orthodox and 4 percent Modern Orthodox), while another 6 percent is of another non-Orthodox denomination.11

Worldwide, the Reform movement claims 1.5 – 2 million members (out of nearly 15 million Jews),12 while the Masorti/Conservative movement is also significant, although not as large. In the U.S., there were 570,000 adult members of Conservative congregations in 2013, and another nearly 400,000 adult American Jews who “identified with” Conservative Judaism but did not belong to a synagogue.13

Beyond the Pew study, a number of studies in recent years that relate to the size of Israel’s Reform and Conservative populations have yielded varying results. One of the more extensive studies, conducted by Tamar Hermann and Chanan Cohen for the Israel Democracy Institute in 2013, asked Israelis whether they “feel that (they) belong to one of the denominations of Judaism, and if so, which one?” Here, 3.9 percent responded they “feel they belong” to the Reform denomination while another 3.2 percent identified with the Masorti/Conservative denomination. A previous study by Hermann, conducted in 2009, had a similar result. If we compare this with statistics from 1999, we find a 50 percent increase.14 This would mean that roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews identify with Reform and Conservative Judaism and would constitute a significant jump from the Pew numbers.15

A more recent study, from 2015, by Panels Politics, showed that 12 percent of Israeli Jews identified with the Reform and Conservative denomination (6 percent each).16, 17

This statistic, even if close to accurate, would mean that the number of Israelis self-identifying as Reform or Conservative is roughly equal in size to that of the Dati or Haredi group and indicates a significant demographic shift in Israel. A 2016 Hiddush18 survey also shows that 12 percent of Israeli Jews “affiliate themselves” with the Reform (7 percent) or Conservative (5 percent) movement.19

A more recent study by the Dialogue Institute conducted for the Reform Movement showed 11 percent (with 7 percent Reform and 4 percent Conservative); 20 JPPI’s upcoming report on Israeli Judaism (conducted by Rosner and Fuchs) shows 13 percent in all – 8 percent who identify as Reform and 5 percent as Conservative. (See figure 2.)

These studies leave us with a significant discrepancy as to the actual size of the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel, from 5 percent at the lowest (Pew) to 13 percent at the highest (Dialogue Institute), with IDI and Guttman-Avi Chai providing a middle ground of 7-8 percent. The most recent studies consistently place the number at over 10 percent combined.

However, even the 5 percent low mark stands in overwhelming contrast compared to the actual membership statistics of the two movements. The Israeli Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (hereafter: The Reform Movement) reported 4500 registered adult members as of 2017. The Masorti Movement in Israel (hereafter: the Conservative Movement)21 reported 7500 registered adults as of 2017. (Were children to be included, we could estimate as many as 20,000 dues paying Reform and Conservative Jews. See figure 3.)

While this is the first time the membership statistics of the movements are being published (to the best of our knowledge), their general scope was assumed by those familiar with the topic, and often touted by those skeptical of the need to pay much attention to non-Orthodox Judaism (and opponents of religious pluralism) in the Israeli public discourse.