February 24, 2020

Guest Column: Does it matter how many Israelis define themselves as Reform\Conservative?

Two days ago, I posted an article based on a new survey. The survey showed that the number of Israelis defining themselves as Reform and Conservative is very small — in this survey of parents to children in non-religious schools, less than half a percent (read it here). I also made several observations based on that survey, including the one that this survey “means that progressive Judaism in Israel is not a movement in the same sense that it is a movement in other Jewish communities.”

Michal Berman, the head of Panim — one of the two the organizations that conducted the survey — asked to respond to my article and add her own interpretation of the state of progressive Judaism in Israel. I am happy to post it here.

Israeli Judaism and Reform Jewry — Does it really matter how large the Reform population in Israel is?

Michal Berman

In his column, Shmuel Rosner refers to data published by Panim, the Israeli Judaism Network, together with the Sapir Center, in which roughly half a percent of Israeli Jews identify as Reform or Conservative. This should be studied further.

The survey was conducted among parents of students in public secular schools. Excluded from the survey were parents whose children attend public or private religious schools, as well as people without children in the educational system or without children at all. The findings will be discussed during the Hakel Festival, organized by the Israeli Jewish pluralistic public, which will take place during the week of Sukkot in the Efal seminar, Ramat Gan.

Rosner notes that previous studies attempting to define religious identity in Israel concluded that between 6-12% of Israeli Jews identify with the two major liberal streams, indicating a higher estimate than the one mentioned in this survey. Surveys conducted over the years show larger numbers of diverse religious communities and individuals who affiliate with them.

I would like to bring a new perspective to these facts. The attempt to count those belonging to one or another liberal stream is largely an attempt to view Israeli society through American lenses. It’s difficult for Americans to understand this, but the Israeli Jewish reality is composed of paradoxes. In Israel, Judaism affects the public’s daily life; very much so. You can’t miss Yom Kippur or Passover, or any other Jewish holiday. Shabbat is everyone’s weekly day of rest. The Jewish calendar dictates the country’s yearly schedules. Hebrew is spoken everywhere. There’s no need to work hard to feel Jewish or be Jewish.

An American immigrant described it thus to a friend who remained in the U.S.:

‘What I like about Israel is that I don’t have to practice any Judaism. I can simply be a secular Jew.’

Americans who experience Yom Kippur in any large Israeli town are surprised to discover that Israelis are divided into two groups: the religious on the way to the synagogue, and the secular on bicycles and roller skates in the empty streets. While living side by side, they are all Jews at heart. Each observes Yom Kippur in their own way.

In the United States, the way to be Jewish is by joining an organization, a federation, a community, a synagogue or a Hebrew school. To belong, and have your children belong, you must invest time and resources and register with a Jewish organization. This makes it possible to count who belongs to what Jewish stream.

In Israel, on the other hand, there’s no need to affiliate with any stream; certainly not among the non-Orthodox. You don’t have to pay fees nor spend time in a synagogue to experience Yom Kippur or any Jewish holiday. Most Israelis are fluent in Judaism; there’s no strong need to belong. The issue of how many Israelis identify as Reform or Conservative doesn’t matter.

Israeli Judaism is a movement of organizations and communities that seek to cultivate Jewish spiritual meaning in life, in a culture that isn’t necessarily religious. They’re trying to integrate Judaism and democracy, so that neither comes at the expense of the other. The liberal communities (The Reform and the Conservative) are part of this movement. There are pluralistic study centers. There are also communities whose members don’t affiliate with a specific stream but may identify as religious, secular or traditional.

It’s not a missionary movement. The sole aim is to live a Jewish, democratic life and bring about change in how weddings, divorces and burials are managed. To allow people to conduct life rituals by their own principles. To allow a variety of prayer rituals in places of public worship, like the Kotel.

Israeli Judaism doesn’t necessarily belong to specific streams, but it does hold by Jewish values that resemble those of liberal American Judaism. Even more, it seeks to keep Israel a place for all Jewry, despite influences from extreme parties with a strong political position, who are trying to dispose of liberal values and turn Israel into a country based on Halacha.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel have an important job in facilitating a pluralistic voice. They offer a place for all those who hold by Jewish pluralism, equality and democracy and who don’t believe that these values conflict with each other.

I feel it’s important to point out that the great partnership between the Reform and Conservative communities in the United States and Israel represents far more than 6-12% of Israeli society. Furthermore, it even represents the majority of Israelis who desire fully equal and democratic lives, without yielding to outside influences coming from coalition agreements and a twisted status quo. Those agreements were formed under the pressure of time and the reluctance of politicians to make changes, once and for all, for the good of the entire public, not just a minority.

Moadim le-simcha, and chatima tova!

Michal Berman is the CEO of Panim – the Israeli Judaism Network – representing 60 Israeli,  Jewish-oriented and pluralistic organizations.