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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

A commonly held stereotype of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel is that they are mostly North American expatriates alongside a few intellectual, elitist, left-wing and usually older Ashkenazi Jews. Many view Reform and Conservative Judaism itself as foreign and mostly superfluous within the Israeli context. Alternatively, as one colleague described it, these are a form of cultural imperialism.

Although this may have been largely true once, especially of the small, hard-core membership, it is no longer the case and does not reflect the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who identify with the denominations (the Conservative Movement in Israel estimates that today, only about one-fifth of the hard-core membership is comprised of native English speakers). The 2013 IDI study reflects the transformation of the movements into something more broadly “Israeli.” The IDI sample group divided participants into Ashkenazi, Mizrahi/ Sephardi, Israeli and those from the former Soviet Union (FSU), and asked if they identified with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or no denomination. Mizrahi/ Sephardi Jews were over-represented compared to their share of the sample group (they comprised 19 percent of the sample group, while 25 percent of those self-identifying as Reform and Conservative each were Mizrahi / Sephardi). Not surprisingly, those identifying as Ashkenazi (25 percent of the sample) were also over-represented as Reform or Conservative. (See figure 10.)

Moreover, contrary to the commonly held stereotype, not all Reform and Conservative Jews are left leaning. The 2013 IDI study also found that on socioeconomic issues, Reform Jews do indeed lean left – with half preferring leftist social-democratic economic policies, as compared to 39 percent of the total population. Conservative Jews tended to espouse more centrist views, 46 vs. 41 percent of the total sample. However, on political and security matters – 67 percent of Conservative Jews identified with the right, as opposed to 56 percent of the total sample. Among Reform Jews, 42 percent placed themselves as Centrists on political and security matters, and only 19 percent identified with the Left. (See figure 11.)

On a practical level, Conservative Judaism tends to be more traditional in its approach to prayer, textual study, and ritual observance than its Reform counterpart is. Conservative rabbis (as opposed to adherents) are mostly observant of Jewish law and might not be immediately discernible from a Modern Orthodox Jew. Conservative Jews in the Israeli context are, however, different from Masorti (traditional) Jews in that Conservative Judaism strives for active and critical engagement, as well as adherence to Jewish law, albeit with greater readiness to enact change, and, of course, in an egalitarian framework. Members of the Conservative movement, even those who are not observant, expect their leadership to be so. When they do attend a religious function, they prefer that it be conducted in a more traditional manner, as explained by Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch, Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Deutsch notes that probably only 10 percent of Conservative Jews in Israel are actually observant, a number that reflects the IDI data. This active traditionalism differs, as Yizhar Hess, CEO of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement,64 explains, from traditional (Masorti) Israeli Jews, whose observance is more passive and accepting of the direction Orthodox Judaism sets.

As Rabbi Gilad Kariv explained in our interview, “Generally, Reform communities in Israel take a more traditional approach (to Jewish practice and prayer) than do Reform communities in North America or other parts of the world. This stems from the connection of Israelis to the Hebrew language and to the more traditional nature of Israeli society. The Israeli Reform Movement’s prayer book, for example, is heavily influenced by traditional prayer books. Another example is that the Israeli Reform Movement has not adopted patrilineal descent, as did the American Reform Movement. However, the Reform Movement is, at its core, liberal and progressive and places an emphasis on personal and communal autonomy. It sees Jewish law and tradition as sources of guidance and inspiration, but not of authority. Thus, prayer in Israeli Reform communities is less traditional than in Modern Orthodox or Conservative communities. Reform communities in Israel include musical instruments in Shabbat and Holiday services. Prayer and lifecycle event texts heavily employ modern and contemporary Israeli literature, and rabbis and prayer leaders wield individual influence over the style of prayer. We believe that this creative approach, which combines tradition and Israeli culture, fits the values and world view of most of the secular public in Israel as well as a significant portion of those who call themselves traditional.”

One stereotype that does seem to be largely accurate has to do with the higher socio-economic status and educational level of those drawn to non-Orthodox forms of Jewish religious practice. The movements seem to have made few inroads in the socio-economic periphery of the country, which remains largely traditional or religious.