Study: 13 percent of Israelis identify as Reform or Conservative

JPPI study finds that greater numbers of non-practicing Jewish Israelis turning to progressive Jewish movements for their lifecycle events and identify with them over the Orthodox establishment.

Union for Reform Judaism 370 (photo credit: Union for Reform Judaism)
Union for Reform Judaism 370
(photo credit: Union for Reform Judaism)
A report by the Jewish People Policy Institute has found that 13% of Israeli Jews, some 800,000 people, identify with the Reform and Conservative movements, although only a tiny minority, some 12,000 citizens, are members of a progressive synagogue.
The report, authored by Dan Feferman, uses data from a survey conducted by the Jerusalem-based JPPI with Prof. Camil Fuchs on 3,000 Israeli Jews for a an upcoming report on Israeli Judaism.
The report published Monday showed a significant sector of the secular and traditional population has shifted its cultural identity away from the Orthodox establishment to progressive Judaism, even if it is not involved in regular religious practice within the non-Orthodox movements, said JPPI senior fellow Shmuel Rosner.
Other recent studies have reported identification with the progressive Jewish movements between 5% and 12%, but even an average of the lowest figure and the highest gives a population of some 585,000 Israelis who identify with the Conservative and Reform movements.
According to the study there are just 125 Conservative and Reform communities in Israel although only 56 of them have permanent synagogues and community centers.
Of the 125, 78 are Conservative and 47 are Reform.
This compares to the more than 15,000 Orthodox synagogues in Israel as of 2014, with approximately 200 new ones built every year.
There are 25 full-time Conservative rabbis working in communities around Israel and a total of 170 ordained Conservative rabbis who are members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly. The Reform movement has 60 rabbis actively working in Reform communities or educational frameworks, and a total of 110 rabbis who are members of the Reform Rabbinical Council.
One area where the progressive Jewish movements have attracted significant interest from the Jewish public is in life cycle events such as bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, circumcisions and funerals.
Both movements combined conduct on average 3,200 bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies every year and 1,050 weddings, although these are not recognized by the state or by the Chief Rabbinate.
They conduct some 410 conversions per year on average, and 900 funerals.
“Most “Hiloni [secular]” Israelis are not really secular or detached from Judaism and largely engage in Jewish practice, holiday observance of some sort, and life cycle events,” writes Feferman.
“This connects to a general shift to post-materialist societies in the West, which has inspired some renewed interest in spirituality, religious practice, culture and tradition.”
He writes, however, that many secular Israelis have been “turned off” Orthodox Judaism and especially the Chief Rabbinate, and that significant numbers are now changing the paradigm that the synagogue they do not attend is Orthodox, and gravitating instead to progressive alternatives.
“This means that Reform and Conservative Jewish practice are now seen as authentic and preferable by these largely secular and traditional Israelis, who engage with such Jewish practice primarily for life cycle events and holidays,” writes the author.
Rosner stated that the data demonstrate that many Israelis who are not actively Orthodox and used to identify as non-practicing Orthodox, are now non-practicing Conservative and Reform.
“Many secular Israelis no longer feel comfortable identifying with Orthodox Judaism but want to identify with some form of Judaism because of traditional inclinations,” he said.
“It’s about cultural identification. This means that hostility towards Orthodox Judaism is growing among the traditional and secular sectors.
“It does not mean that Israel tomorrow will have many Reform Jews in the American model, but Orthodoxy is loosing its hold on secular and traditional Israelis, and many no longer want to be identified as Orthodox.”
Rosner said that it will be increasingly hard for Orthodoxy to preserve its monopoly over Judaism in Israel as the population which does not identify with it increases, and that non-practicing Israelis are likely to turn to the Conservative and Reform movements in growing numbers for their Jewish life cycle events.
“They won’t be regular synagogue attendees, but for weddings, burial, holiday synagogue attendance, and for a Judaism that is acceptable when they need an establishment they associate with Jewish culture, they’ll chose non-Orthodox over Orthodox Judaism.”