A few years ago, one of the leading foundations in the Jewish world and one of the most prominent research institutes in Israel joined forces to prepare a comprehensive study into Israeli-Jewish identity.
The authors of the survey invited me to be one of the speakers at an event to present the results, and accordingly they sent me their final report in advance.
The survey was run in a professional and thorough manner and included a very wide range of subjects relating to the way Jews in Israel understand and depict their Jewishness.
With the exception of one question concerning the political and legal issue of the status of Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel, the final report did not include a single question about the non-Orthodox streams. It was clear to me that I would address this mater in my comments at the conference, but in order to respond on all the relevant issues in a serious manner, I asked to receive the raw findings of the survey before these were edited to form the final report.
To my surprise, I found that the survey included explicit questions relating to the activities of Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel.
However, the answers to these questions had not been included in the report presented to the public.
According to the original findings of the survey, 8% of the Jewish public in Israel identified with Reform or Conservative Judaism, and over 30% had visited a Reform or Conservative synagogue in order to attend a prayer service, a bar or bat mitzva, or another occasion.
When I asked the authors of the survey why they had ignored these findings in their final report, their strange reply was that they felt that there had been some error in these findings.
Thankfully, the representatives of the Israel research institute agreed that this reply was inadequate and undertook to implement a dedicated study focusing on the activities of the non-Orthodox streams in Israel.
A year later, the findings of that survey were duly published, completely corroborating the initial findings that had been concealed.
Moreover, the second survey showed that the demographic profile of the Israeli public that identifies with Reform and Conservative Judaism is no different from the general demographic profile of the Jewish population in Israel, both in terms of the proportion of native-born Israelis and those born in the Diaspora, and in terms of the proportion of Ashkenazim and Mizrahim/Sephardim.
This poll also revealed impressive political diversity among those groups that identify with the non-Orthodox streams.
THE STORY of the concealed data was not entirely surprising.
Both before and after this survey, numerous surveys have been published in Israel that completely ignore the Reform and Conservative communities and the significant growth in their exposure to the Israeli public over the past decade. Time after time, we have found ourselves reminding researchers, academics, politicians and media professionals that Reform and Conservative Judaism are not limited to the Diaspora but are also relevant here, in Israeli society.
Fortunately, in recent years surveys have also been published recognizing this fact and describing the quiet revolution that is taking place in Israeli society in the field of religious pluralism. These surveys repeatedly show that at least 10% of the Israeli public now identifies itself in religious terms with Reform and Conservative Judaism, and that the scale of exposure of Reform and Conservative communities is rising constantly, and currently exceeds 40% of Jews in Israel. These figures reflect the fact that in recent years the number of non-Orthodox synagogues in Israel has doubled, as has the number of Reform and Conservative rabbis leading congregations and educational institutions. Last Tu Bishvat, the Conservative (Masorti) Movement in Israel held its annual conference. Hundreds of delegates from throughout Israel attended the event. This coming weekend, 1,500 Israelis will attend the convention of the Israel Reform Movement at Kibbutz Shefayim. The Kabbalat Shabbat service on the kibbutz lawns will undoubtedly be the largest Friday- evening service held in Israel over the past year.
How, then, can we explain the fact that the Israeli media, significant elements of the political leadership, research and academic bodies, and even some Jewish organizations and leaders in the Diaspora continue to ignore this revolution? The reason may lie in the fact that we are still at the beginning of the road, and the impressive growth in the activities of the non-Orthodox streams has occurred over the past decade.
Even so, it is impossible to ignore the possibility that the glass ceiling over the heads of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel serves a deeper purpose connected to the interests of powerful ideological and political circles in the country. This is certainly true in the case of the haredi establishment and political parties, which need the struggle against the non-Orthodox streams and the claim that they are irrelevant to Israeli reality like oxygen.
Unfortunately, though, it is also true of Modern Orthodox circles in Israel and of devoutly secular elements. The former seek to present themselves as the only alternative for an inviting, moderate, and welcoming Judaism; the latter seek to portray themselves as the only option for liberal and democratic Israeli identity.
FOR MANY YEARS, the secular- Orthodox dichotomy obscured the existence of the traditional (“masorti” with a small “m”) public in Israel, most of whom are of Mizrahi/Sephardi origin. This group fell under the radar of cultural and spiritual discourse.
Today, the same process obscures the size of the public that identifies with the liberal religious movements. Somewhat strangely, this dichotomy also has partners in the Diaspora who have become accustomed to the idea that Reform and Conservative movements cannot have an independent and flourishing existence in Israel.
These partners often speak of the post-stream era of the Jewish people, thereby confusing the situation in Israel with that in certain parts of North America. In a reality where every Jewish community of 5,000 people has two Reform synagogues, two Conservative synagogues, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, and three Beit Chabads, it is reasonable to speak of such a reality (though even then caution and moderation are called for).
In the Israeli reality, where all too many Israelis are still unable to find an egalitarian synagogue in their home community, the Reform and Conservative movements have a crucial and revolutionary role to play. Pluralistic Jewish Renewal in Israel needs an avant-garde that challenges institutions, movements, and streams – but it has an even stronger need for forces that create facts on the ground, develop infrastructures, train leaders, and bring its message to dozens of towns and communities across the country.
The State of Israel is entering the eighth decade of its sovereign existence. By the standards of nations, this is still adolescence.
And like any adolescence, it brings plenty of energy, daring, and chutzpah – but also many challenges of self-identity. The growth and consolidation of a significant and influential Israeli tribe associated with Reform and Conservative communities and detached from the familiar Orthodox-secular dichotomy are vital in order to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and in order to maintain the bonds between Israeli society and Diaspora Jewry.
These processes are encountering more than a few obstacles, most notably the discriminatory and hostile attitude of the government and other authorities.
The glass ceiling above the heads of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel by various elements beyond the corridors of power constitutes a no less significant barrier. It is doubtful whether it will be possible over the next few years to resolve the former obstacle fully, since it is essentially a political matter. But we can and should address the latter obstacle.
Those who believe that the vision of the Declaration of Independence must be translated into everyday Israeli reality should celebrate the growth of Israeli Reform Judaism and Israeli Conservative Judaism. They certainly should not ignore this revolution.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv is president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.