Israel: More Reform, Conservative than Charedi Jews

Eight percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews, compared to just 7 percent of Israelis who define themselves as “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox). Amazing? I think it is quite amazing, given the never-ending discussion of Charedi power and growing population and the very little regard given to the liberal streams of Judaism within Israel.

But commentary and amazement aside, the data is what counts here, and this data was found buried deep within the vast survey of the Guttman Center — a survey about which I wrote here several weeks ago.

However, you won’t find this data in the final Guttman Report.  The report divides Israelis by more common categories of “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox, 7 percent), “religious” (15 percent), “traditional” (32 percent), “secular” (43 percent) and “anti-religious secular” (3 percent). Another question that does appear in the report, and that was released to the public, examines Israelis’ practical adherence to tradition. Fourteen percent say they observe tradition “meticulously,” 26 percent observe the Jewish tradition “to a great extent,”  44 percent “to some extent” and 16 percent “not at all.” 

A majority of Israelis (61 percent), we read in the report, “agree that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox in Israel.”  We also read that “most Israeli Jews (69 percent) have never attended a prayer service or religious ceremony in a Reform or Conservative synagogue.”

Does this mean that more than 30 percent of Israelis did attend a service in a liberal congregation? That is not an insignificant number, and it is indeed the number one can find by opening the full SPSS file of survey data now available online (Inbal Hakman of the Jewish People Policy Institute assisted me with the file and with finding the data). (For links, visit this story at

The question is narrowly tailored: “Did you ever attend/not attend a service or a religious ceremony in a Conservative or Reform synagogue?” And the response reflects both the low number (or low level of commitment) of people frequently attending the liberal places of prayer, and also the surprisingly high number of Israelis exposed to services in such places. (Regularly, 1 percent; frequently, 3 percent;  yes, but rarely, 26 percent; never, 69 percent.)

The much more interesting finding, though, is related to the self-definition of Israelis — the one I mentioned in the opening sentence of this article. Question No. 157, the answers to which were not included in the Guttman Report, asked: “How would you define yourself religiously?” The options were: Charedi, Charedi-Leumi (Zionist ultra-Orthodox), Dati-Leumi (Zionist-Orthodox), Conservative, Reform, Other, Do not belong to any stream.

The full list is: Charedi, 7 percent; Charedi-Leumi, 2 percent; Dati Leumi, 22 percent; Conservative, 4 percent; Reform, 4 percent; other, 12 percent; No stream, 50 percent. This latter group constitutes the more than 40 percent of the self-defined “secular,” and probably some “traditional” Israelis, as well. But the combined number of “liberal” religious Israelis, 8 percent, is most surprising. 

Intrigued by the numbers, I called professor Tamar Hermann, the academic supervisor of the Guttman Center. She told me to be careful about jumping to overreaching conclusions based on this very thin data. Hermann believes that many of the Israelis who defined themselves as “Conservative” and “Reform” were really “Israelis with strong religious sense that do not see themselves identifying with the Orthodox establishment.”

Hermann sent me the data for the same question from the Guttman survey of 1999. For some reason, the phrasing of the 1999 question was somewhat different, and that is always a reason for caution: “Do you see yourself as belonging to any stream of Judaism — which one?” it asked. The options were also different: “non-Zionist Charedi,” “Zionist-Charedi,” “Zionist-religious,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “no stream.” Seventy percent of the 1999 respondents didn’t identify with any of the streams (compared to the 50 percent in 2009), and the combined percentage for Conservative and Reform was smaller: 5 percent (compared to 8 percent in 2009). This might be a result of how the question was asked, but it could also reflect a surge in the sense of Reform and Conservative belonging.

Here are some possible conclusions and speculations in light of this new data:

1. If you’re one of those panicked over the strengthening of the Israeli Charedi community, you might want to reconsider.

2. If you’re a Conservative or a Reform leader, tired of hearing that these streams have no way of succeeding in Israel — here’s your window of opportunity, opened wide.

3. Commitment does matter, a lot. Having many self-defined Conservative and Reform Israelis is nice, but it will not be truly important if the number of practicing Conservative and Reform Israelis doesn’t significantly grow.

4. The old formula of dividing Israelis into “religious” and “secular” with some “traditionalists” in the middle is losing relevance. There’s a center of moderates. An important silent center of moderates that needs to be heard. Variations are numerous, but old clichés die hard.

Reform defends Richard Jacobs as critics attack his Israel positions

An angry exchange over the Zionist credentials of the incoming president of the Reform movement has intensified and exploded onto the public stage.

The conflict pits the movement’s leadership against a group of dissidents who say they represent a growing number of Reform Jews upset by the movement’s “leftward shift.”

Last week the dissident group, which calls itself Jews Against Divisive Leadership and is led by Washington-area Zionist activist Carol Greenwald, placed an ad in a number of Jewish newspapers criticizing the recent appointment of Rabbi Richard Jacobs as the next president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Greenwald, who is on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, also has an Op-Ed in JTA slamming Jacobs.

The ad, signed by some three dozen members of U.S. Reform congregations, suggested that Jacobs is not sufficiently pro-Israel to head their religious denomination. It notes that he is on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and the board of the New Israel Fund, two organizations that promote left-wing causes related to Israel.

The ad calls upon the Union for Reform Judaism to reconsider Jacobs’ appointment or risk driving “mainstream Zionists” out of the Reform movement.

Stuart Weil, a citrus grower in Fresno, Calif., and a lifelong member of the Reform movement who signed the ad, said he is outraged by “the leftist agenda of the Reform movement,” which he says has intensified in recent years.

“Yoffie and Saperstein have turned the Reform movement into an affiliate of the Democratic Party,” he told JTA, referring to current URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie and Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Reform leaders in North America and Israel quickly mobilized a response to the attack on Jacobs, circulating a letter signed by a variety of Jewish leaders affirming Jacobs’ support for Israel, as well as authoring opinion columns praising Jacobs and condemning divisiveness in the community.

Jacobs himself used an appearance Monday in Washington at the Religious Action Center to stress his Zionist credentials and advocate for “big tent” Zionism.

“In times of crisis, it is not uncommon for lovers of Israel to close in tight around only a narrow slice of the community. But Israel is not served by such a narrow tent,” Jacobs said. “I believe that Israel’s security and well-being require that Israel must become a more tolerant and pluralistic society.”

The rabbi, whose nomination must be confirmed by the URJ board in June, noted his lifelong activism in support of Israel along with his deep commitment to what he described as the state’s democratic foundation.

Jacobs, 55, is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y. He was tapped in March as the president-designate of the URJ, which claims 1.5 million members and nearly 900 synagogues.

“I have known Rabbi Jacobs intimately and personally for more than 15 years, and if he is not a friend and lover of Israel, then these categories have no meaning,” Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote in an Op-Ed in JTA this week.

Hartman said that while Jacobs’ critics “undoubtedly mean well,” their “nervousness” about Israel’s security is coloring their approach to Jacobs.

Leaders of the Reform movement’s seminaries in North America and Israel took a harsher tone against the dissidents in an Op-Ed that appeared on the Jewish Journal website.

The authors—Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Michael Marmur, the college’s vice president for academic affairs; and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of its Jerusalem campus—blasted the dissident group’s “distorted caricature” of Jacobs and said the “handful” of signatories on the ad they published were out of touch with current Zionist norms.

“The fact that those who have assaulted Rabbi Jacobs’ integrity have wrapped themselves in the flag of Zionist purity is particularly galling,” the Op-Ed said. Decrying the “the tactics of witch-hunting and demagoguery,” the Op-Ed called Jacobs “a model of constructive engagement.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said attacks on Jacobs’ character and reputation, whether coming from within or outside the Reform movement, “are harmful to the spirit of unity and common cause that unites the Jewish people.”

That sentiment was echoed in a letter of support for Jacobs signed by two former chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a pair of Conservative leaders.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, told JTA that he could not remember a similar public outcry against the appointment of a movement leader focusing on the individual’s position on Israel.