JPPI's Jewish World Dialogue

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity


This year’s Dialogue Process marks the third year that JPPI has been building a structure for a systematic discourse on issues that are at the core of the collective interests of the Jewish people globally. Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity, discussing together how the different streams approach Judaism, is a main component of our project on Pluralism and Democracy in Israel and the Diaspora. We are grateful to the William Davidson Foundation for supporting this endeavor and encouraging a deeper understanding among Jews globally.

The 2016 Jewish World Dialogue was co-headed for the first time by an Israeli JPPI Senior Fellow in tandem with an American one. Shmuel Rosner and John Ruskay, representing the two largest Jewish communities in the world, started a personal conversation before widening it to 49 different seminars worldwide. They didn’t neglect the smaller communities, which many times present the most difficult challenges.

JPPI’s effort to enhance pluralism in the Jewish world has, from its inception, enjoyed the encouragement of Israel’s leaders, such as former President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and JAFI’s Chairman Natan Sharansky as well as the participating communities and Jewish organizations abroad. President Reuven Rivlin, who is dedicated to bridging gaps in Israel and world Jewry, launched a tradition with JPPI to bring together representatives of all the streams to study together Jewish texts. The Dialogue is approaching the point when it should culminate in a deeper results-oriented conversation at the highest echelons of leadership on how we should fulfill our common destiny.

The Jewish people is undergoing a period of radical change in its internal dynamics: generational transitions; the promise of some normalization of Israel’s situation in the Middle East; a shift in Jewish Identification and sense of community. The external environment of the Jewish people is changing radically as well: globalization; geostrategic shifts; value transformations; scientific and technological innovations; new manifestations of anti-Semitism. All these create new realities and challenges that provide the Jewish people unprecedented opportunities for thriving but also pose serious risks of decline.
Enriching the dialogue in the Jewish world between different communities, streams, and political orientations may help us take advantage of opportunities and avert dangers and threats.

We are continuing in making an effort to internalize and implement the lessons learned from each year of JPPI’s Structured Dialogue Process.

I want to thank the Institute’s leadership, and especially Stuart Eizenstat, Dennis Ross, and Leonid Nevzlin, who head our Professional Guiding Council, for their continuing commitment to, and support of, our work. Special thanks, once again, to the William Davidson Foundation for its confidence and trust.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef

Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

This special JPPI report is based on discussions held all over the Jewish world exploring the Jewish spectrum in our time of fluid identity. It is also based on a vast volume of research and relies on a plethora of previously published studies, papers, books, and articles. References to some of the background materials we utilized appear in the footnotes. The research was used mostly for understanding the background of our topic of discussion, while seminars enabled us to learn firsthand about the opinions of Jewish leaders, professionals, rabbis, philanthropists, activists and other engaged Jews. Most of the discussions were held in March and April 2016.

Alongside the discussion groups, all participants were asked to complete a questionnaire, referred to as the Dialogue survey throughout this report). Beyond the fact that it provided us with additional and focused information about participant attitudes, this questionnaire enabled us to present a more accurate and detailed picture regarding the groups who took part in the process (such as the age of the participants, their religious affiliation, and how many times they have visited Israel). It can also be used as a tool to compare those who participated in JPPI’s Dialogue this year to participants from previous years, as well as to the general Jewish population by comparing the data with other studies.241

Naturally, the conclusions drawn from the seminars, the survey, and the background materials are subject to reservations and critique, and we cannot present them without raising several “warning flags” to explain the context in which the seminars were held, and to clarify what they can accomplish for certain, and what they cannot.

Structure and content of the seminars:

The vast majority of the seminars were between one and a half to two hours long, and in most cases each discussion group had less than 20 participants. In communities where there were a greater number of participants, they were divided into separate discussion groups that were summarized separately.

At the beginning of each seminar and prior to the start of the discussion, participants were asked to complete the survey questionnaires. Afterward, the seminar began with a brief presentation on the reason for having the seminars, laying out the basic underlying assumptions for the discussions, and the main questions that would be raised. Later on, several scenarios were presented for more detailed and practical discussion. The first case had to do with questions concerning the allocation of funds for Jewish outreach purposes. The second dealt with determining criteria for eligibility to immigrate to Israel under the “Law of Return.” The third case related to the criteria for holding various positions in the Jewish community or for participating in activities initiated by the Jewish community (or the government of Israel).

Following a detailed exchange on some of the scenarios, the discussion returned to the central questions that had been defined as the main focus of the Dialogue:

  1. What makes a person Jewish?
  2. Does being Jewish require certain behaviors, beliefs, or ancestry? Is there a belief or a behavior that disqualifies one from being Jewish?
  3. Should Jews strive to have a common understanding of what is «Jewish»? Who, if anyone, should be the ultimate authority on this matter?

Specific questions were presented to the discussion groups and they were asked to express their opinions concerning these issues, as well as in connection with the scenarios they had discussed previously that provided them with additional information and examples of specific ramifications of different answers to these questions.

Bias in favor of the Jewish community’s core population:

Understanding the process, its advantages and limitations requires that we first note that this process relies heavily upon each local community (and local organizations). The communities were responsible for recruiting the groups for the seminars. Therefore, there are significant differences in the composition and size of the groups in various communities. But one thing is common to all of them: The established community – usually the Federation but sometimes other organizations as well – was the organizing body that gathered the participants. In many cases, particularly in the seminars held outside the United States, it was also the body that reported on the discussion to JPPI. Since we rely on the seminar reports from all the communities, it is important to recognize the fact that they are reporting on the attitudes of Jews who are connected to the “core” of the organized Jewish community, often the attitudes of Jews who hold various leadership positions in the community, and are less of a reflection of Jews whose connection to established Jewish life is weak, or even non-existent.242 We know from previous studies that members of the core community attribute greater importance to their Jewish identity, are more actively Jewish both in their personal lives and as members of the community, are more connected to Israel, and in certain cases tend to be less liberal than other Jewish groups.243 The information we gathered indicates, for example, that the Dialogue participants tend to visit Israel much more frequently than the “average Jew.”244 Naturally, these characteristics could impact the attitudes of participants in the Institute’s seminars.

The voice of younger community members:

Since the groups convened for the discussion were, by and large, groups of people with high standing in the community, many of them included fewer young people whose Jewish identity often differs in composition and intensity than the Jewish identity of older cohorts.245 Continuing our efforts from the 2015 Dialogue to ensure the representation of younger participants, we held discussion groups especially for young participants – in St. Louis and in Portland, as well as a group of Leeds University students, and several groups of Diaspora participants in Masa and other gap year programs in Israel.246 In addition, we had a significant group of young Israeli participants this year, adding the voices of young Israelis not include in previous years. As a result, this year we can present a report that includes significant representation of a young age group. Distribution of the age data (see: Appendix B) indicates that this year, the number of young people participating in the Dialogue corresponds, more or less, with the percentage of young people in the Jewish community as a whole.247 Of course, with the help of these groups we could also compare the perspectives of older and younger Jews participating in the Dialogue process, both from their statements during the discussions and their responses to the Dialogue survey.


Age Group of Survey Respondents

Religious composition:

The Institute’s process included very few ultra-Orthodox participants in past years. This year, we managed to include a higher percentage of ultra-Orthodox participants, including an ultra-Orthodox group in Dallas and participants in other groups who identify as ultra-Orthodox. However, in several communities ultra-Orthodox Jews preferred not to take part in the discussion despite an invitation to participate, so in most communities they are underrepresented.248 Below is a table that clearly presents the specific religious makeup of the groups, in comparison to other studies. Generally speaking, the percentage of Jews who define themselves as “Conservative” is higher in the Dialogue than their actual share of the general Jewish population; in comparison with this, the percentage of Jews who are not “Reform,” “Conservative” or “Orthodox” in the Dialogue is lower than their share of the general Jewish population. In other words, those participating in the Dialogue were more “religiously affiliated” (not in terms of observance but in terms of identity and identification) than the average Jew.


Religious Affiliation

  • Conservative includes: Conservative, Conservadox
  • Non-denominational includes: cultural, pluralistic, liberal, humanist, Jewish, post denominational, none
    Orthodox includes: Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Religious Zionist
  • Other includes: other, Reconstructionist, Masorti, Traditional, Datlash
  • Reform includes: progressive Reform, orthodox + Reform, Conservative + Reform
  • Secular includes: Secular, Secular +Orthodox, Secular + Reform, Secular + Conservative, Secular +Masorti

As you can see in the next graph, the composition of Israeli participants is quite different from those of the other main groups of participants (this year, the U.S., Brazil and Australia). Israelis tend to be either Orthodox or secular, while in other countries the dominant groups are religiously affiliated Conservative Jews and Reform Jews (in Australia, Orthodox and Reform). Naturally, such compositional differences in composition translate into other differences of views – as we highlighted in the report.

Religious Affiliation by Country

Geographic distribution:

The geographic distribution of the seminars was quite widespread. Communities from several continents took part in the Dialogue process. The impressive representation of the North American Jewish community corresponds to the size of the Jewish population there.249 This year, as the topic of seminar discussions was about Judaism as a whole, we included several groups of Israeli participants. In addition, quite a few new communities joined the process, mostly in the United States. We also had, as in previous years, significant representation from Australia and Brazil. Representation of European Jewry was lower in this year’s process than we would have liked. We hope to expand the number of participating communities next year, and for now we have attempted to overcome the under-representation of these communities by analyzing the relevant background materials.250

Participants by Country

Interest in Israel:

Unlike the two previous Dialogues – on Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state, and on the use of force in armed conflict – this year our focus was not Israel but rather the larger Jewish world. Still, it is worth noting that groups taking part in the discussions had a self-selection bias as groups who have an interest in Israel. Thus, the general picture we get from the seminars undoubtedly tends toward those members of the worldwide Jewish community for whom Israel is important, and who are interested in conducting a Dialogue that includes a significant Israeli component. We can find clear-cut evidence of this in the fact that the percentage of Israel visits among seminar participants is much higher than the rates for the general Jewish population.

How Many Times Have You Visited Israel?

On the other hand, it is important to note that Israel, and the views of Israelis, are underrepresented in the Dialogue. We included more Israelis in the Dialogue this year, but their number, relative to Israel’s dominance as one of the two largest Jewish communities is still proportionally small (there were more Brazilian and Australian Jews in the Dialogue than Israeli Jews – see graph). The Israeli participants were also notably younger than Jews from other countries (this is by design).

Gaps in the process itself:

In certain cases we relied on the communities to record seminar minutes and summarize them for us, and in other cases the Institute’s staff was responsible for the summaries. JPPI researchers facilitated the seminars in some communities; other seminars were run by the communities themselves. Additionally, seminars varied in duration, discussion intensity, and level of summation. Full details regarding the nature of the seminars in each community appear below. It should be noted that all of the participating communities demonstrated an impressive level of earnestness and commitment to the process.

After having outlined the composition of the seminars and highlighting some of the limitations, we should also present some of the advantages. A discussion among Jews with a clear and unequivocal interest in the Jewish world and who are involved in their own Jewish communities can be preferable to a discussion that also includes Jews who are weakly connected to the Jewish community with a low level of interest. Since the purpose of the process is to discuss the implications of certain trends on the policies of communities (and the State of Israel) it would be reasonable to argue that such a discussion should take into account primarily (and perhaps only) the outlook of Jews in the world for whom the community is important. Taking into consideration the perspectives of Jews who are not interested in Judaism and in their Jewish community is not reasonable in this context.
In spite of this, in order to give a full and comprehensive picture of the “outlooks of the Jewish world” we supplemented our study by including a considerable amount of data and information that also shed light on the outlooks of groups who are more distant from the organized community, including data from studies and quotes from articles. We have made a considerable effort to present a full and comprehensive picture in this report, to the best of our understanding.