Study finds more Israelis identify with Conservative, Reform Judaism

12-13% of Israeli see themselves as part of liberal religious streams, JPPI survey shows, though few are active members of synagogues

Conservative Jews praying at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem, July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/ Flash90/ via JTA/ File)
Conservative Jews praying at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem, July 30, 2014. (Robert Swift/ Flash90/ via JTA/ File)

A new survey has shown a significant rise in support for Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel, as well as a growing number of people who identify as Conservative and Reform Jews.

The study by the Jewish People Policy Institute showed that 12-13 percent of Jewish Israelis (around 800,000 people) identify as being members of the more liberal streams of Judaism, a number that stood at around 7% only five years ago.

The Reform and Conservative streams have traditionally been seen as niche movements in Israel, with many members coming from English-speaking backgrounds. However, the study showed that while only about 12,000 are registered members of the liberal streams, hundreds of thousands more identify with them, reflecting growing frustration with Israel’s Orthodox hegemony.

“These Israelis, according to the report, are mostly secular or traditional Israelis who identify with the liberal denominations and primarily interact with them for the sake of life-cycle events,” the report noted of those who are not registered members.

The study showed the movements have 125 communities throughout Israel — 56 of those with permanent synagogues — and 280 rabbis, with around 10 new rabbis ordained every year.

It also found growing unhappiness with the Chief Rabbinate’s hold on several key aspects of daily life among many in the secular and traditional populations.

“In the past, secular Israeli Jews tended to utilize the Chief Rabbinate’s services in ceremonies marking major life-cycle events as an expression of unity,” JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef said. Now, “more and more are showing fatigue with the religious establishment and turning to alternative spiritual options. Alternative Kashrut certifications are also increasingly sought.”

Study writer JPPI fellow Dan Feferman noted that in the past, “secular Israelis, and certainly traditional ones, when they desired or demanded the occasional religious experience or ceremony did so according to traditional Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism was viewed as the authentic, normative Judaism — to take or leave.”

In common language, the “synagogue they don’t attend” was Orthodox. “Today, a significant number of secular and traditional Israelis would also say ‘they do not attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.’ This means that Reform and Conservative Jewish practices are now seen as authentic and preferable by these largely secular and traditional Israelis, who engage with such practice primarily for lifecycle events and holidays.”

Orthodox Jews try to prevent a group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and the Women of the Wall movement members from bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall compound during a protest march against the government’s failure to deliver a new prayer space, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, November 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In recent years, a growing number of Israelis have protested the Chief Rabbinate by declining its wedding services. Israel does recognize any legal wedding ceremony performed abroad, so some Israelis are legally married in a nearby country and then have an unrecognized ceremony in Israel. Some secular Israelis forgo marriage altogether and live in domestic partnership.

A majority of Israelis are interested in weddings outside the Chief Rabbinate’s auspices, according to a 2017 poll by Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism. Hiddush also reported that most Israelis want more religious pluralism in the country in general. Two-thirds support a separation of religion and state.

In July, the arrest and questioning of a Conservative rabbi for performing weddings outside the auspices of the state-run Chief Rabbinate caused an uproar in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Israel and Diaspora Jewry have seen growing divisions surrounding the Orthodox grip on the country’s institutions. A particular point of contention has been the long-delayed pluralistic plaza at the Western Wall, plans for which the government canceled following ultra-Orthodox pressure, but has since resurrected in reduced form.

JPPI said its study was based on a soon-to-be-released survey conducted by researchers Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs, and which polled 3,000 Jewish Israelis.

JTA contributed to this report.

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