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How many Reform/Conservative Jews are there in Israel? Try less than half a percent

Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

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Shmuel Rosner
Shmuel Rosner is an Israeli columnist, editor, and researcher. He is the editor of the research and data-journalism website themadad.com, and is the political editor of the Jewish Journal.

Beware, this article is boring. That is, unless you are truly interested in the nuances of social studies, polls and the structure of Israeli society.

It begins with a headline, to save time for those uninterested in these nuances: a new survey of parents of Israeli students who attend secular (Mamlachti) schools found that the percent of such people who define themselves as “Reform-Conservative” is — and this is where you should hold your breath — 0.4 percent.

That’s it: less than half a percent.

And note that this is not half a percent of all Israeli Jews. It is half a percent of Israeli Jews who send their sons and daughters to secular schools. Had the survey included parents of all Jews, including those sending their offspring to Orthodox schools (Haredi and Dati), the result would probably be even more meager from a Reform-Conservative viewpoint. It would be very close to zero.

What does this mean? How is this different from previous surveys? What does it tell us about Israel and about the future of Reform-Conservative Judaism in Israel? To answer these questions, we must delve into the boring part. And I’d like to begin this part by revisiting a discussion we had not long ago at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), where I am a senior fellow.

That discussion followed JPPI’s release of its most recent survey on pluralism in Israel. In the group that was assembled for the formal presentation of the results, there were a few Reform and Conservative leaders who complained that their movements were left out of it. As the Times of Israel reported, “when some 1,000 Israeli Jews surveyed were asked to self-identify with nine possible religious or secular streams (or neither), there was no option for the Reform and Conservative movements.”

Factually, the complaint was valid. JPPI did not offer “Reform” and “Conservative” categories. But this was not the result of neglect or an out-of-hand dismissal of the movements on the part of JPPI. As I explained in a long response to these complaints, JPPI merely followed Israel’s usual polling routine, and the reason that these polls never include “Reform” and “Conservative” categories when they ask about religiosity is simple: “religious intensity (do you observe, believe in God, belong to a religious community) is one thing; religious affiliation (is your religious affiliation Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform) is another matter.”

In other words, asking a person to choose between being “religious” and being “Reform” means nothing. Religious is about intensity, on a scale from ultra-secular to ultra-religious, while Reform is about affiliation to a stream, on a scale that includes all streams.

Still, the complaint was not dismissed because Israel is unique. In Israel, “religious” has become synonymous with Orthodox. In Israel, a Reform rabbi hesitates to call herself “Dati” (religious), because “Dati” will make the pollster cluster her answers with those of mostly Orthodox-religious Israelis. So a way to identify Reform and Conservative Jews is needed, and attempts at doing this have been made by several pollsters in recent years.

The Pew survey thus found that 2 percent of Israeli Jews identify with Conservative Judaism and 3 percent with Reform Judaism. Guttman-Avichai found that 8 percent identify as Reform or Conservative Jews. A survey by Menachem Lazar, the pollster JPPI worked with, found as many as 12 percent of Israel Jews identifying with these movements.

The catch with all these polls was the same. They asked about intensity of religiosity — secular, traditional, religious, ultra-religious —  and they asked about identification with a stream in a separate question — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Thus, we discovered that most Israeli Reform Jews and a large percentage of Conservative Jews also identify as secular, “Hiloni.” These are not-religious Israelis who prefer, for whatever reasons, surely some of them political, to identify with non-Orthodox Judaism.

This is what makes the new survey different. The new survey was commissioned by “Panim,” an umbrella organization of 60 groups active in the fields of Jewish-Israeli education, culture and community activity. It is an organization sympathetic to non-Orthodox Judaism and to Jewish pluralism in general. And maybe that’s why it decided to do what the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements asked JPPI to also do. It decided to let the parents of secular children choose one of three categories: Secular, Traditional, Reform-Conservative (Orthodox religious parents do not send their children to the same school system).

The result is telling, in that only 0.4 percent of parents are Reform-Conservative. In other words: the primary religious self-identification of almost all parents who send their children to non-Orthodox Jewish schools is secular (83 percent) or traditional (17 percent). Of the group most likely to include Israeli Jews who are either Reform or Conservative, there is only a very small percentage of people who see themselves as primarily Reform and Conservative Jews. These Israelis are secular first, Reform – if they are – only second (and in the same way, many Israelis are secular first, Orthodox second).

So, what does this mean?

It means that sometimes it is worth remembering: be careful what you wish for. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements might need to reconsider their wish to have more surveys that seriously examine the number of Israelis who define themselves as members of their movements.

It means that previous surveys, in which the number of Reform and Conservative Israelis presented was 8 percent or 12 percent, must be taken with a grain of salt. If you force on Israelis the choice between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism, some of them, maybe even 12 percent, will choose non-Orthodox identification. But if you also give them the option of being who they really are, they will give the answer of Israelis: secular, traditional — not members of a movement or a stream.

It means that progressive Judaism in Israel is not a movement in the same sense that it is a movement in other Jewish communities. The many Israelis who encounter the movements see them as providers of religious services — an alternative to the hated rabbinate — not as an ideological stream to which they belong. This is, of course, a weakness, but it’s also a strength. It is a weakness because of the relatively low level of commitment of most of these movements’ target audience. It is a strength because it means that as long as the Orthodox rabbinate is hated, most Jews in Israel are a target audience.

A word of caution is due: this is one survey. It is not a survey of all Jewish Israelis, but rather of a certain sample of younger people, parents who have school-age children. Older people, even in this poll, are more likely to identify with Reform and Conservative Judaism — 0.7 percent for age 41 and up in this survey compared with an average of 0.4 percent. The survey had 507 respondents representing a national sample of parents to children at the Mamlachti (official-secular) school system. It has a 4.4 percent margin of error. So the parents that identify with the movements are clearly within that margin of error.

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