The Power of Advertising

About 1,000 people crammed into Jerusalem\'s Kol Haneshama Reform synagogue for Yom Kippur services, while another 500 or so listened in the courtyard outside.
October 7, 1999

About 1,000 people crammed into Jerusalem’s Kol Haneshama Reform synagogue for Yom Kippur services, while another 500 or so listened in the courtyard outside.

“My own father couldn’t get in,” said Rabbi David Ariel-Joel, assistant director of Israel’s Reform movement. “Neither could Yossi Cohen, who designed the advertising campaign.”

The advertising campaign, in which the Reform and Conservative movements pitched nonobservant Israeli families to come to their High Holiday services, appears to have succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. The joint campaign, whose $360,000 tab was financed by San Francisco’s Goldman Fund, featured a multicolored Star of David in its newspaper ads and the slogan “There is more than one way to be Jewish.” More than 350 radio spots ran on state-run Israel Radio — but only after the station canceled the contract out of fear of upsetting Orthodox sensitivities, and then relented out of fear of Supreme Court suits from the Reform and Conservative. The ads got the go-ahead once the two movements agreed to delete the “offensive” slogan from the radio spots.

Tel Aviv’s Beit Daniel Reform synagogue had about the same massive-size turnout as did Kol Haneshama, noted Ariel-Joel. “Most of our 27 synagogues were overflowing with people. Altogether, I’d say the number of people we had was at least double from last year,” he said, putting this season’s attendance figure at above 20,000.

In addition, more than 7,000 phone inquiries have come into the Reform offices and synagogues over the High Holidays from Israelis wanting to have Reform weddings or bar/bat mitzvahs, or interested in starting new Reform congregations in virgin territory outside Israel’s major cities and wealthier suburbs, said Ariel-Joel.

Conservative Rabbi Einat Ramon, head of the movement’s Religious Services Bureau, made a rough estimate that High Holiday attendance at the 46 Conservative synagogues went up by some 25 percent over last year. Some thousands of inquiries came into the movement, she added.

At Ramon’s Havurat Tel Aviv, which held its services in a hall at the city’s Gymnasia Herzliya high school, there was a full house of 500 or so for evening services, just like last year. “What was different this time was that people were staying for services all day on Yom Kippur, not just for Kol Nidre and Ne’ila [evening services],” she said. “And I saw a lot more young people, Israelis in their 20s.”

Nadav Shashar, a Hebrew University marine biologist who lives in Eilat, was drawn to Eilat’s Shirat Hayam Conservative synagogue for High Holiday services after he saw one of the ads in the newspaper. He had been raised “traditional” — his parents made Sabbath kiddush and attended High Holiday services in an Orthodox synagogue, and a few of his uncles are even Orthodox rabbis.

“But I just can’t accept the Orthodox way anymore, and I was looking for a synagogue where I could feel comfortable,” he said. Shashar, 38, had just returned from eight months studying and working in the United States. “I had attended a number of Conservative and Reform synagogues there, and I saw that Orthodoxy wasn’t the only way, that Judaism was much more dynamic than that.”

Shirat Hayam is the first Israeli non-Orthodox synagogue he’s attended. About 50 people showed up for High Holiday services, most of them either immigrants from English-speaking countries or, like himself, native Israelis who had lived in an English-speaking country for an extended period. “Most of the members are well-educated, and they care very much about the congregation,” he said. “I feel it’s a place where my wife and I can be involved, and where we can bring our daughter.”

This was one of the key points the ad campaign made — the egalitarianism of Conservative and Reform services, that “the whole family can pray together,” noted Ariel-Joel. Another key message of the campaign was that the services were understandable to all — even those who had little or no familiarity with the siddur.

This was the target audience of the ads — the Israeli secular public, those who were alienated from Orthodoxy, those whose real choice for the High Holidays was not between an Orthodox or non-Orthodox synagogue, but between a non-Orthodox synagogue or none at all.

The audience was also native Israeli, not “Anglo,” the Israeli term for English-speaking immigrants. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have sizable Anglo minorities in their congregations, but the newcomers over the High Holidays were nearly all sabras, said Ariel-Joel and Ramon.

The reservoir of Anglos for the movements is basically dried up, said Ramon, explaining that they’ve known about the Conservative and Reform movements all their lives, and those who haven’t joined in Israel by now aren’t likely to in the future. But for veteran Israelis, the movements have always been rather alien, a newfangled American import, not truly Jewish, so they constitute a new clientele.

The ad campaign was the first major inroad into the native ranks made by the Reform and Conservative movements. The upsurge in attendance at Reform and Conservative synagogues and the flood of inquires from previously nonobservant Israelis attest to the effectiveness of the ads, but are also part of larger socioreligious trends in Israel. One is the trend among secular Israelis to familiarize themselves with Judaism, which grew after the Rabin assassination, when many Israelis decided they could not surrender Judaism to Yigal Amir and his constituency.

Another explanation for the High Holiday turnout is that it was an expression of defiance against the fervently Orthodox, and an act of solidarity with those who are fighting the Orthodox establishment.

A woman who called the Reform movement to find out more about it said she got interested after hearing one of the radio ads, and was moved by her frustration at how “the [Orthodox] have taken over Judaism so that now my children don’t know anything about their Jewish identity and don’t want to know. There has to be another way.” The woman, who lives in a small rural community, would not give her name, the name of her community or any other personal details, for fear that “my neighbors are going to think that I’m bringing in another kind of synagogue here.”

To Ramon, there is yet another reason behind the turnaway crowds at Conservative and Reform synagogues over these High Holidays: “At the end of the 20th century, people all over the world are looking for spiritual meaning. In Israel, some Jews are turning to [the Sephardic fervently Orthodox movement] Shas, while others are looking in the other direction — for a spiritual Judaism that is not fundamentalist.”

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