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Jewish Journal

Israel: More Reform, Conservative than Charedi Jews

by Shmuel Rosner

February 29, 2012 | 3:15 pm

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Zachi Evenor

The Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo by Zachi Evenor

Eight percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Conservative or Reform Jews, compared to just 7 percent of Israelis who define themselves as “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox). Amazing? I think it is quite amazing, given the never-ending discussion of Charedi power and growing population and the very little regard given to the liberal streams of Judaism within Israel.

But commentary and amazement aside, the data is what counts here, and this data was found buried deep within the vast survey of the Guttman Center — a survey about which I wrote here several weeks ago.

However, you won’t find this data in the final Guttman Report.  The report divides Israelis by more common categories of “Charedi” (ultra-Orthodox, 7 percent), “religious” (15 percent), “traditional” (32 percent), “secular” (43 percent) and “anti-religious secular” (3 percent). Another question that does appear in the report, and that was released to the public, examines Israelis’ practical adherence to tradition. Fourteen percent say they observe tradition “meticulously,” 26 percent observe the Jewish tradition “to a great extent,”  44 percent “to some extent” and 16 percent “not at all.” 

A majority of Israelis (61 percent), we read in the report, “agree that the Conservative and Reform movements should have equal status with the Orthodox in Israel.”  We also read that “most Israeli Jews (69 percent) have never attended a prayer service or religious ceremony in a Reform or Conservative synagogue.”

Does this mean that more than 30 percent of Israelis did attend a service in a liberal congregation? That is not an insignificant number, and it is indeed the number one can find by opening the full SPSS file of survey data now available online (Inbal Hakman of the Jewish People Policy Institute assisted me with the file and with finding the data). (For links, visit this story at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.)

The question is narrowly tailored: “Did you ever attend/not attend a service or a religious ceremony in a Conservative or Reform synagogue?” And the response reflects both the low number (or low level of commitment) of people frequently attending the liberal places of prayer, and also the surprisingly high number of Israelis exposed to services in such places. (Regularly, 1 percent; frequently, 3 percent;  yes, but rarely, 26 percent; never, 69 percent.)

The much more interesting finding, though, is related to the self-definition of Israelis — the one I mentioned in the opening sentence of this article. Question No. 157, the answers to which were not included in the Guttman Report, asked: “How would you define yourself religiously?” The options were: Charedi, Charedi-Leumi (Zionist ultra-Orthodox), Dati-Leumi (Zionist-Orthodox), Conservative, Reform, Other, Do not belong to any stream.

The full list is: Charedi, 7 percent; Charedi-Leumi, 2 percent; Dati Leumi, 22 percent; Conservative, 4 percent; Reform, 4 percent; other, 12 percent; No stream, 50 percent. This latter group constitutes the more than 40 percent of the self-defined “secular,” and probably some “traditional” Israelis, as well. But the combined number of “liberal” religious Israelis, 8 percent, is most surprising. 

Intrigued by the numbers, I called professor Tamar Hermann, the academic supervisor of the Guttman Center. She told me to be careful about jumping to overreaching conclusions based on this very thin data. Hermann believes that many of the Israelis who defined themselves as “Conservative” and “Reform” were really “Israelis with strong religious sense that do not see themselves identifying with the Orthodox establishment.”

Hermann sent me the data for the same question from the Guttman survey of 1999. For some reason, the phrasing of the 1999 question was somewhat different, and that is always a reason for caution: “Do you see yourself as belonging to any stream of Judaism — which one?” it asked. The options were also different: “non-Zionist Charedi,” “Zionist-Charedi,” “Zionist-religious,” “Conservative,” “Reform,” “no stream.” Seventy percent of the 1999 respondents didn’t identify with any of the streams (compared to the 50 percent in 2009), and the combined percentage for Conservative and Reform was smaller: 5 percent (compared to 8 percent in 2009). This might be a result of how the question was asked, but it could also reflect a surge in the sense of Reform and Conservative belonging.

Here are some possible conclusions and speculations in light of this new data:

1. If you’re one of those panicked over the strengthening of the Israeli Charedi community, you might want to reconsider.

2. If you’re a Conservative or a Reform leader, tired of hearing that these streams have no way of succeeding in Israel — here’s your window of opportunity, opened wide.

3. Commitment does matter, a lot. Having many self-defined Conservative and Reform Israelis is nice, but it will not be truly important if the number of practicing Conservative and Reform Israelis doesn’t significantly grow.

4. The old formula of dividing Israelis into “religious” and “secular” with some “traditionalists” in the middle is losing relevance. There’s a center of moderates. An important silent center of moderates that needs to be heard. Variations are numerous, but old clichés die hard.

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