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Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel

There are 47 Reform communities around Israel today, of which30 have permanent synagogues and community center structures. In 1989, there were only 15, and 22 a decade ago.22 The largest most active communities are in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Ra’anana, Modiin and Mevaseret Tzion. These centers, as opposed to the smaller communities, host daily activities including lectures, discussion groups and, of course, religious services, and attract tens if not hundreds of individuals on a daily basis.23

Israel’s Conservative Movement has 78 communities, with 26 fully functioning communities with permanent synagogues and another 52 that hold their activities in temporary structures, schools or community centers. Small groups regularly meet for study and prayer, in either a more or less traditional or formal setting, and larger events get significant turnout.

As a point of comparison, there are over 15,000 Orthodox synagogues in Israel, as of 2014, with roughly 200 new ones built each year. This statistic does not include regular prayer groups that meet outside of synagogues (thousands more of these exist).24

Rabbi Gilad Kariv,25 who heads the Reform Movement in Israel, said his goal is that every city and town in Israel with a considerable secular population will have a Reform or Conservative synagogue. Rabbi Avi Novis Deutsch, who heads the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary the Conservative Movement, thinks the goal should be to double the number of communities to give the average secular Israeli the option of which synagogue to attend.

Both movements maintain rabbinical seminaries in Israel – Hebrew Union College for the Reform Movement, which is a part of the HUC system based in the United States (Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and New York) and the Schechter Institute for the Conservative Movement. HUC in Jerusalem ordains 5 or 6 new Israeli rabbis yearly, while Schechter ordains 3 to 5.

Today, there are 25 full-time Conservative rabbis working in communities around Israel. This is out of a total 170 ordained Conservative rabbis in Israel who are members of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly – which includes many ordained in the U.S. and other places, about half of whom are employed as rabbis or educators in some manner. The Reform Movement currently has 110 rabbis in the Reform Rabbinical Council in Israel, 60 of whom are actively working in Reform communities or educational frameworks in a professional capacity within Israel, while the rest either work in pluralistic Jewish education or are working abroad.

Beyond synagogues, the movements are active within the school system. Since the 1970s TALI (acronym in Hebrew for “Enriched Jewish Studies”), originally affiliated with the Conservative Movement, provides roughly 50,000 children in Israel in 325 public schools – 110 elementary and 215 preschools – with additional Jewish education in a pluralistic spirit (12 percent of all secular public schools).26 Therefore, families who wish to include additional Jewish learning within a secular framework can do so through this program, supported in part by the American Conservative Movement (more on this in the “Access to the Education System” later in the paper).

The Reform Movement currently includes a small number of elementary and post-elementary schools in Jerusalem, Modiin, and Tel Aviv, as well as the prestigious Leo Baeck High School in Haifa, the country’s only Reform high school. Together these comprise 97 classes and, in 2017, 2,860 students. Additionally, there are 50 Reform kindergarten classes serving 1530 students. Ten public schools in Tel Aviv work with the Reform Movement to help prepare sixth graders for their bar/bat mitzvahs, and the movement aims to incorporate this tutoring to all of Tel Aviv’s 60 secular public schools. Beyond that, the Reform Movement works with 100 secular public schools to provide special educational content centered around various holiday and life cycle events, and holds “Torah ceremonies,” which involve 7000 students yearly.27 The Conservative movement has 16 kindergarten classes serving 400 students.

As we will note later in this report, while there are few “Reform” or “Conservative” schools in Israel, many of the Mamlachti (Secular) public schools include Jewish educational content developed by pluralistic Jewish educational organizations. We can assume that many of those sending their children to Reform, Conservative or generally to pluralistic Jewish schools, or schools with enhanced Jewish studies, are doing so primarily because of the high quality of the education offered, and not because of the religious education provided. However, as explained by one such parent (a JPPI colleague, who considers themselves “Hiloni” and sends their child to a Reform school), although the quality of the education is what attracted them, and the religious aspects were a deterrent initially, they have come to value and appreciate the liberal, pluralistic religious education the school provides.

As a point of comparison, there are today in Israel, 2711 “Mamlachti” elementary and middle public schools serving Israel’s Hiloni and Masorti populations, 809 “Mamlachti-Dati” schools (“public-religious”) and 1511 private Haredi schools.28 Moreover, the Conservative Movement, working with the school system, has, for the past 25 years, conducted bar and bat mitzvah programs for disabled children (who would not normally be able to have such a ceremony), culminating in around 200 such ceremonies each year.

The Conservative Movement maintains an active youth movement, NOAM, which has 20 branches around the country with 1400 active members. The Reform Movement’s youth movement, Noar Telem, includes roughly 400 participants in 12 branches (including in four new branches in the last two years),29 which are recognized by the Education Ministry.30

The Reform Movement operates two pre-army academies (mechinot) since 2003, in Jaffa and Holon, with 75 students at a time, out of a national total of 40 mechinot. Twenty-five additional participants have completed a year of national service in Haifa and Kibbutz Lotan. The students enjoy a year of intensive study and exploration of Jewish heritage and Israeli identity prior to their military service.31 This is recognized by the IDF and Ministry of Education.32
The Conservative Movement established a mechina in 2012, in the Conservative Movement’s Kibbutz of Hannaton. In all, together with its other pre-military programs, it counts 90 participants.33

There are also a number of kibbutzim, or agricultural collectives, that are officially part of these movements. Yahel and Lotan are officially Reform kibbutzim, while Hannaton is part of the Conservative Movement. Notably, Reform and Conservative synagogues or prayer groups can also be found on other kibbutzim around Israel. A growing number of kibbutzim, once staunchly secular, hold synagogue services on Shabbat, holidays, and for life-cycle events; most are “Reform style,” although unaffiliated.