The number of Conservative\Reform Jews in Israel goes up (again)

July 21, 2015

It's a common belief that Conservative and Reform Judaism are not really dominant in the Israeli Jewish sphere, a common belief that has some truth to it. For many years the dominant religious stream in Israel was Orthodoxy, while other streams – born in Diaspora communities and possibly more compatible with Diaspora circumstances – seemed alien to many Israelis. That, and the inherent advantage of Orthodoxy based on its official monopoly on several key components of Israeli life (Marriage, Kashrut, representation in official ceremonies), made the “other streams” seem marginal. To most Israelis these remained the streams of diaspora communities (and perhaps a few Anglo communities in Israel).

Thus, people were somewhat surprised when three years ago I first published findings according to which eight percent of Israelis define themselves as “Reform” or “conservative”. Not a huge group, but also not a very small one. Can you believe it – my headline from three years ago said – Israel has more Conservative and Reform than Haredis.

That was then. Today we can talk about even larger numbers. According to a survey conducted by Menachem Lazar about a week ago, 12% of Israelis define themselves as “Reform” or “Conservative”. 6% for each denomination. Of course, that is still a much lower number than the 35% of Israelis who define themselves as “Orthodox”, and even lower than the 45% of Israelis who answer with “no denomination”. But it is something. More than Haredis, for sure. More than it was a couple of years ago.

When I called Lazar to talk about his findings he said he was not surprised. That is, because two years ago he conducted a poll in which the percentage of Conservative and Reform Jews was similar. Only back then he was not certain about the meaning of the number because the question was somewhat problematic. Instead of asking about “Conservative”, the question was about “Masorti-Conservative” – a term that could be misleading for “traditional” (Masorti) Israelis. The recent survey confirms that Israelis were not misled. The numbers are very similar. More than one in ten Jewish Israelis chose to answer with a “Conservative” or a “Reform” to the question about religious denomination.

Lazar sent me additional data with which to try and understand why so many Israelis – relatively speaking – are suddenly becoming Reform and Conservative, and what this change means.

In his previous poll, he asked respondents to say if their self-definition as Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative means something that they deem “personal” or “communal” – namely, if their definition is a manifestation of participating in a community of like-minded Jews.

For Orthodox Israelis – not all but many – it is. More than 64% of Israeli “Orthodox” Jews said that the definition refers to both a communal sense of belonging and a personal one, and 9% more said that is refers only to the communal sphere. But for Reform and Conservative Israeli Jews the opposite is true. Their self-definition is mostly “personal” – not “communal”. 73% of Reform Jews and 65% of Conservative Jews said “personal”. So what we have here is a growing group of Israelis that are choosing to identify themselves with something, not to participate in something.

Of Reform Israeli Jews, 91% said that they never or rarely participate in religious ceremonies “in the synagogue of the stream with which they identify”. 70% of Conservative Israeli Jews never or rarely participate in religious ceremonies “in the synagogue of the stream with which they identify”. So the common joke about secular Israelis – the shul they never go to is an Orthodox shul – should now be updated. For a growing segment of secular Israel, the shul-rarely-visited is now a Reform or a Conservative shul.

So today, the Israeli “Chiloni” (secular) Jew does not instinctively identify himself or herself with Orthodoxy. According to Lazar's data from last week, only 6% of secular Israelis define themselves as Orthodox. 7% define themselves as Conservative, and 10% say Reform (71% refuse to be identified with any of the streams).

Israel's “traditional” sector – a segment that most people assume is a non-Askenazi, relaxed form of Orthodoxy – is also not exactly what we think. 26% of “masorti” (traditional) Israelis identify as Orthodox, but 17% identify as Conservative (10%) or Reform (7%).

Of the groups of self-defined “religious” and “ultra-religious” Israelis (Haredi and Dati) the percentage of Conservative and Reform is zero. Namely, in Israel being Reform or Conservative is almost proof of no active religiosity in the traditional sense. Take this finding, combine it with the one from a year ago about the personal-communal sphere and the picture becomes clearer: Conservative and Reform Israelis are people who do want to identify themselves with a religious stream, but have a very low tendency to join Conservative and Reform communities or lead actively religious lives.

What does this tell us about the state of these streams? First of all it means that the denigrated Israeli Orthodox rule is not necessarily bad for them. The annoyance than many Israelis feel because of Orthodox hardheadedness motivates some of them to identify with streams other than the Orthodox stream, even though they do not lead an actively religious life.

It also means that these streams have not yet found a way to turn identification into action. People might like the idea of non-Orthodox Judaism, but they do little except for telling a pollster that they like it. Politically speaking, that is, of course, a recipe for more Orthodox rule – because in politics, while numbers are important, the intensity of support for an idea or a movement is even more important.

Take a look at one example, also from Lazar's recent poll: the Israeli government, a few days ago, canceled the conversion reform that was established by the previous government. Do Israelis support the cancelation? Not really. 60% of them still say that they support the conversion reform, and only 25% of them say they oppose it. But the 25% triumphed over the sixty percent – because for them it is a higher priority.  Or take a look at a similar example: not long ago another poll of Jewish Israelis revealed that a whopping “fifty-nine percent of respondents agreed that rabbis representing the Reform and Conservative movements should be treated the same as their Orthodox counterparts”. So this is another case of minority triumph over the majority – because the minority makes this issue a priority.

Will this ever change? That's up to the majority of Israelis to decide. But even if the change is slow, and even if the issue of priorities forces one to take the information in the new numbers with a grain of salt, one should not miss the fact that something is not quite as it used to be. Surely, with more than a tenth of the Jewish Israeli population calling themselves Conservative and Reform, these terms will gradually lose their once alien-sounding meaning.

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