Poll: Most Israelis want equal status for non-Orthodox rabbis

Some 71% disagree with president’s decision to nix bar mitzva celebration officiated by Conservative rabbi

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Reform wedding in Tel Aviv, not recognized by the rabbinate. (Serge Attal/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Reform wedding in Tel Aviv, not recognized by the rabbinate. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

Some 59 percent of Israeli Jews believe the state should recognize Reform and Conservative rabbis and grant them the same legal status as their Orthodox counterparts, according to an opinion poll released Monday.

Commissioned by Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that works to promote religious freedom in Israel, the poll reveals a disparity among Israelis regarding the level of influence Orthodox institutions have on daily life in Israel.

The poll found that 71% disagreed with President Reuven Rivlin’s recent decision to backtrack on hosting a bar mitzvah ceremony for disabled children at his residence officiated by a Conservative rabbi.

Citing opposition by Orthodox families who said the affiliation of a Conservative synagogue would prevent them from participating in the celebration, the president ultimately canceled the event to avoid further controversy.

Hiddush Director Rabbi Uri Regev called on Rivlin to reconsider his decision, and said the president repeatedly demonstrated a “huge blind spot” regarding the equal treatment of all Jewish denominations.

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin at the president's residence in Jerusalem on March 22, 2015. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 22, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The president must not act as if he is the exclusive President of Orthodoxy, to the exclusion of the largest streams of world Jewry,” he said in a statement.

“It’s very unfortunate that while the president expresses such praiseworthy concern for various, marginalized sectors of Israeli society, even they may often be controversial in his own political circle,” Regev said.

The poll results reveal that respondents who identified as national-religious or ultra-Orthodox largely supported the president’s decision to exclude the Conservative rabbi from the bar mitzva — at 67% and 92% respectively. In stark contrast, only 7% of secular Jews responded that Rivlin’s decision was justified.

Among respondents identifying as voters of Rivlin’s own Likud party, two-thirds responded that the president was wrong.

The question of equal status for non-Orthodox rabbis further underscored the denominational divide in Israel on issues of religion and state.

Among secular Jews, 95% said they supported equal recognition for Reform and Conservative rabbis, as opposed to a much lower 45% of traditional Jewish Israelis and 10% of those polled from the national-religious community.

Fully 100% of ultra-Orthodox respondents said they opposed such reforms.

Regev warned that the growing “crisis” facing the Conservative community in Israel could prevent the president from being an effective envoy for Israel among the mostly non-Orthodox Diaspora communities.

The poll was conducted by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute for Hiddush on June 15, 2015, and surveyed 507 adult Israeli Jews.

Israel’s relatively small Reform and Conservative communities have been waging a legal and public relations battle for equal treatment by the Orthodox establishment and tolerance by Orthodox Jews.

As recently as last year, in his capacity as a member of the Knesset, Rivlin opposed granting equal status to the Reform and Conservative movements. He also drew outrage in the past for calling Reform Judaism “idol worship” and refusing to address Reform rabbis as “rabbi.”

However, since becoming Israel’s head of state last July, Rivlin’s approach appears to have softened, and he has sought a policy of inclusiveness. Last September, he told Conservative Jewish leaders that he respected and recognized “lovingly and genuinely, people who have chosen a different Jewish identity from my own.”

Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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