Progressing slowly

Conference to discuss the Reform movement's struggle to gain a foothold in Israel.

reform jews pray 224 88  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
reform jews pray 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Next week, the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute is launching a two-day international conference on the sociology, pedagogy and theology of Reform Judaism. In addition to sessions on Postmodernism and the Liturgical Image of God, Reform Judaism and the End of Education, and The Influence of Feminism on the Reform Movement, a closing debate will be dedicated to the relationship between Reform Jews and Israeli society. Dr. Asher Cohen, of Bar-Ilan University's political science department, will speak about Reform Judaism's absorption difficulties in Israel from a socio-cultural point of view. "Success in such a case as the implantation of the Reform movement in Israel should be tested in various circles, from the general cultural aspect to the facts on the ground, such as the number of members registered," says Cohen. "From a pure socio-cultural analysis, we see that the number of congregations - some 26 around the country - hasn't changed in the past decade and I think this data speaks for itself. "But there is more: I hear that at Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv, for example, families that are considered or define themselves as secular, are on waiting lists of more than a year for a bar or bat mitzva," he continues. "That is impressive, but what does it really tell us? That these people have become members of the Reform community? No, they are in fact consumers of a 'product' offered by the Reform community. "My understanding is that until about five years ago, Reform [Judaism] offered Israelis an unnecessary alternative. Today I believe it offers an irrelevant alternative." Cohen attributes the Reform movement's absorption difficulties not to its content, but rather to the structure of the Jewish sector of Israeli society. "I think that the numbers are the key to understanding the situation. In a [Jewish] population of approximately 5.5 million, the total number of registered members of the existing communities is almost insignificant, so far. According to the Guttman survey, dating from 1999, only three percent identified themselves with the Reform movement in Israel. "Even if today, less then 10 years afterward, we could go up to 5% or even 7%, it is still insignificant. If you consider that, according to the same survey, only 15% of secular Jews in Israel declared that if they needed a 'Jewish' service - like a bar mitzva or a brit - they would go to a Reform rabbi or synagogue, it becomes clearer that this movement has a problem reaching the masses." The movement began in Germany toward the end of the 18th century as a reaction to the Enlightenment (which led to many cases of conversion to Christianity) and the secularization of the Jewish communities there. It proposed a more "flexible" approach to Judaism, introduced changes to the prayer books and the observance of Halacha and later, opposed Zionism. At a 1937 rabbinical conference, the Columbus Platform was formulated, which recognized the centrality of the Land of Israel and an obligation to support the Zionist endeavor. Today, there is no doubt that in the US, the Reform movement, which is the largest Jewish stream, is Zionist, supports the State of Israel and encourages aliya. In Israel the Reform movement began in 1935, when olim from Germany created two communities. One immigrant founded what is known today as the Leo Baeck Day School in Haifa, but this initiative notwithstanding, both communities dissolved and became Orthodox. The Movement for Progressive Judaism, as it is known in Israel today, began in 1958, with the creation of the Har-El Congregation on Rehov Shmuel Hanagid in Jerusalem. In 1965, the movement held its first convention, which helped pave its way into Israeli society and presented a challenge to Orthodoxy. The movement was officially registered in Israel in 1971 and in 1974, Hebrew Union College opened its Reform rabbinical program. Today the movement has 26 communities across Israel, including one in the Upper Galilee (Har Halutz) and two in the South (Yahel and Lotan). The movement also includes the Council of Reform Rabbis, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and the Beit Shmuel Cultural Center and Beit Midrash. "LET'S SEE which potential communities might adopt the Reform movement's paradigm," says Cohen. "In the Orthodox community - and I'm talking only of the liberal modern Orthodox - there is a strong historical feeling toward Reform Judaism, which traces back to its beginnings. The feeling [among members of this community] is very antagonistic and for many of them, the mere word 'Reform' has very negative connotations to the extent that the expression 'religious renewal' is used instead. There is absolutely no mention of the word Reform or anything that sounds like Reform. "Next, let's consider the traditionalists or masorti'im. They are almost exclusively Oriental Jews who have maintained strong ties with their traditions and feel at ease with Zionism, the world outside and modernity," continues Cohen. "You can easily identify them: They will go to synagogue on Shabbat, and then watch TV or go to the beach. They don't have a tradition of antagonism against their rabbis, they don't fight them and this is, by the way, why so many of them voted for Shas. Here too, there is no audience for the Reform movement." As for secular Jews in Israel, Cohen says they are indifferent to the Reform movement, "perhaps because these people are not interested in going to synagogue, period. For them, the question is not that synagogue or the other one, the more welcoming or more flexible. They are just not interested." Cohen also alludes to the movement for Jewish renewal, which sees Judaism as a culture and not a religion. Members have a deep interest and concern for their Jewish roots, and create secular batei midrash and houses of prayer. "Theoretically, they should have been the best candidates, but they are not, you don't see them in Reform communities," says Cohen. "Why? Because Judaism as a culture interests them, not God. God, who is very present in the Reform synagogues, bothers them." Cohen hesitates and then adds: "Orthodoxy is still seen as the most authentic [movement]. I met people during my research who told me that they don't want to go to synagogue, but the synagogue they will never go to will always look like a typical Orthodox synagogue, the rabbi will look like an Orthodox rabbi and so forth. "I met couples who decided to avoid the religious wedding imposed by the state here and chose instead to go to Cyprus or the States," he continues. "When I asked them why they didn't choose a Reform wedding ceremony in Israel, they answered: 'It's not the real thing.' I was astonished by the answer, but that's how it is." IRAC head Anat Hoffman rejects most of Cohen's conclusions. "We do not define ourselves according to numbers," she says. "This is a very narrow look at the sea of Judaism and this is not our way. We have taken it far beyond that, to the notions of justice and equality. I feel sorry for the Orthodox, who cannot enjoy our way of life, which is so full and enriching. "I agree that we still are not on top of the Torah learning issue, but even that will come, I am sure of it," she adds. Hoffman, whose center submits the most High Court petitions in any one year after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, is quick to emphasize the Reform movement's social justice victories in Israel. "In the field of social justice, we set the tone," she says. "Who, besides us, the progressive Israeli Jews, have done more in terms of the status of new immigrants here? "When all these people are lost and cannot prove their identity according to the unbearable laws enforced here by the Orthodox, who comes to support them, in the name of the most sacred Jewish values? Who if not us, the Reform movement? "We have enlarged the circles of those who meet us in their darkest moments, and we hear, so many times, people reacting with surprise when they hear that it is a religious movement that comes to help them," says Hoffman. "It's a shame that for so many people here, religion doesn't mean justice and charity. It's so sad we should cry."