A pluralist approach

If Israel truly is a Jewish democracy, it should honor and respect not only the haredi minority, but also the growing non-Orthodox minority who identify with progressive Judaism.

October 20, 2018 21:20
3 minute read.
At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Refor

At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Reform rabbinical program. (photo credit: PR)


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A study by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) released last week reports that 12% to 13% of Israeli Jews – some 800,000 people – identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism. “These numbers illustrate significant growth in the last decade,” the study says, calling it a possible “paradigm shift.”

Israel’s government should take note of the results of this study, which essentially shows that pluralism is on the rise in the Jewish state. It’s also time for Israel to take meaningful action to include non-Orthodox Jewry – both from here and abroad, where they are the vast majority – on such issues as recognizing egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and legitimizing Reform and Conservative rabbis.

The study, titled “Rising Streams, Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel,” finds that an increasing number of Israelis are “fed up” and “frustrated” with the Orthodox religious establishment.

Among its findings are:

• The number of Reform or Conservative communities throughout Israel has climbed to 125,

• There are 280 rabbis already affiliated with the non-Orthodox streams, with 8-10 rabbis ordained every year, and

• Reform and Conservative have active youth movements and mechinot (army preparatory programs), with a total of 1,800 members in 32 branches, mechinot programs and three kibbutzim.

Although only a small fraction (about 12,000 people or 1.5%) are actually members of a progressive synagogue, the study says that hundreds of thousands of Israelis – the highest estimate is 585,000 – identify with the movements without being active members. These Israelis, according to the report, are mostly secular or traditional and primarily interact with their chosen movement during life-cycle events.

JPPI’s president Avinoam Bar-Yosef stresses that the study, written by JPPI fellow Dan Feferman, indicates a significant shift by Israelis who were once considered “secular” toward liberal forms of Judaism.

“In the past, secular Israeli Jews tended to utilize the Chief Rabbinate’s services in ceremonies marking major life-cycle events as an expression of unity,” Bar-Yosef says. “More and more are showing fatigue with the religious establishment and turning to alternative spiritual options. Alternative kashrut certification is also increasingly sought.”

Feferman writes that because more Israelis are gravitating to progressive alternatives, “Reform and Conservative Jewish practice is 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.

“Even though the majority utilizes the Chief Rabbinate system, we detect frustration and disappointment, which explains the decline in those seeking its services,” Feferman adds.

Overall, the study concludes, “public attitudes toward the Reform and Conservative movements and pluralistic expressions of Judaism are positive, yet there is significant antipathy and hostility from the religious segments of societies.”

If this study is right, then it’s time for Israeli leaders to wake up and realize that the shift away from Orthodox Judaism is not just occurring in North America and other Diaspora communities, but at home in Israel.

Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government upset the Diaspora by reneging on the Western Wall deal negotiated by then-Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky for an egalitarian prayer section just as the agency’s board was about to convene in Jerusalem. As both the Board of Governors and the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) prepare to meet again, now is the time for Netanyahu and his government to correct this historic injustice.

It’s time for Israel’s government to stop caving in to the demands of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties on such issues as marriage, conversion and conscription into the IDF. It’s time for a more inclusive approach to Jews who want to be part of the tribe, but are uncomfortable with the uncompromising requirements of the Chief Rabbinate and the orthodox establishment.

If Israel truly is a Jewish democracy, it should honor and respect not only the haredi minority, but also the growing non-Orthodox minority who identify with progressive Judaism. As the Jewish people faces increasing alienation and assimilation, their very survival may depend on it.

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