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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

The research presented in this paper leads to a number of conclusions and policy implications that decision makers in Israel and community leaders in the Diaspora should consider.

Despite the long-held belief whereby “all Israelis are Orthodox”, the overwhelming evidence shows that this is no longer true among secular and traditional Israelis. At the same time, those voices from the staunchly secular-left in Israel are also missing the mark, in that, a majority of non-observant Israeli Jews care about and largely observe Jewish practice and tradition, at least as far as life-cycle events and holidays. However, they approach this in a largely liberal and non-Orthodox manner. Diaspora leaders should be aware that although the Reform and Conservative Movements are influential in shaping and providing a platform for this emerging observance, the vast majority of these Israelis are not “Reform” or “Conservative”, at least in the Diaspora sense of committed membership, synagogue attendance and a clear religious identity.

Notwithstanding the common-held view among many Diaspora Jews who advocate for religious pluralism in Israel, and who often believe the liberal movements have few or no rights, it is worthwhile to understand that in fact, liberal Judaism and the movements and organizations who comprise it, have a significant (although not full) amount of freedom to conduct religious life as they see fit.

In any case, these rights, freedoms and access to public funding pale in comparison to what Dati and Haredi groups are able to access. This has mostly to do with the political representation of the Dati and Haredi populations in Knesset. Moreover, what was achieved by the liberal Jewish groups was, in many ways, done so through legal efforts within the courts. And yet, it is important to recall that Israel, unlike the U.S. and other countries with major Diaspora communities, has no separation of religion and state. Israel was established as a Jewish State (the meaning of this is constantly being debated), and for historical and demographic reasons, the representative of that Judaism in Israel was and remains Orthodox.

The unequal status of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel is a constant point of contention between the Israeli government and many Diaspora Jews. Significant elements of the government and the constituencies they represent are strongly opposed to the liberal movements and expressions of religious pluralism in general. At the same time, while there is widespread sympathy and support for these movements among the public, this support is not afforded high importance or priority by the supporters themselves. Thus, policies favorable to religious pluralism may find favor with the Diaspora but will cause domestic political discord.

Continued efforts by the Haredi parties to push legislation that would grant greater control to the Rabbinate and block the non-Orthodox movements (as well as Modern Orthodox), is driving many Israelis to bypass the Rabbinate altogether. Some of these efforts are even joined by Modern Orthodox groups alongside the Reform and Conservative Movements. This could make the Rabbinate irrelevant to a significant portion of Jewish Israelis if this trend continues (marriage, kashrut supervision, conversion, etc.).

On certain issues and among certain segments of Israeli society, despite legal hurdles and public funding discrimination (or perhaps because of these), the Reform and Conservative Movements have succeeded in expanding physically, as far as new communities and to a greater number of Israelis in the past decade. This is certainly influenced by positive (appeal) as well as negative (rebellious statement) factors.

At the same time, and on certain issues, it is worthwhile to note that when not specifically labelled “Reform” or “Conservative,” or when public attention is not drawn to a given issue, the government has an easier time allowing and supporting some activities and efforts of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The Haredi parties are also often able to be more pragmatic and compromise in such matters. This leaves the movements with a dilemma, whether to push for symbolic and public victories that will draw active pushback, or advance practical and gradual gains, quietly creating facts on the ground.

Relatedly, the perceived alignment of the Reform and Conservative Movements with left-wing, liberal politics on a range of political and social issues inhibits a broader appeal to secular and traditionally minded, right wing sectors of the public, who might otherwise be drawn to the religious content the movements offer (but attracts other segments of society). Therefore, a market-segmentation strategic approach might be appropriate in order to expand to new segments of society.