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February 29, 2012

Conservative and Reform Jews vs. the AVI CHAI Foundation

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/conservative_and_reform_jews_vs_the_avi_chai_foundation_20120229/

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(Photo: Reuters)

Since I posted last week’s story about the number of Israelis identifying themselves as Conservative and Reform Jews, I’ve been bombarded with emails and calls from people (mostly rabbis) who suspect that there is something fishy about the Guttman report. In various ways they have told me that they were not surprised to discover that some numbers—which are important for them – were omitted from the public Guttman report. This report is funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation, and Israeli Conservative and Reform operatives and rabbis have long complained that this important foundation is—to put it mildly—unfriendly and unsupportive of the branches of the Jewish liberal streams in Israel.

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Their grievances with AVI CHAI are many, and I had the opportunity to revisit some of them as I made calls this morning, to some of the people who shared their suspicions with me (that most of them refuse to go on the record with these complains is due to AVI CHAI’s great power, they say. I must confess that I don’t find this excuse very convincing).

Here are some of the things they’ve told me: It is no coincidence that most of AVI CHAI’s professionals are Orthodox; they support communities of “religious and secular”—namely Orthodox and secular—thus perpetuating the false dichotomy of just two Israeli options regarding religiosity; they do not support programs associated with Conservative and Reform Judaism; they pretend to be open, but really are not, to Conservative and Reform Judaism, at least in Israel.

When these people spoke about the Guttman study they had something very specific in mind: They suspect that the AVI CHAI funders instructed the Guttman researchers not to include the surprising and encouraging findings in the report (regarding Conservative and Reform identification), and in fact to bury them as efficiently as possible.

So I had to call on Guttman’s Prof. Tamar Hermann yet again (she seems to be working full time these days answering my questions), and her response doesn’t leave much room for speculation: “No one in the AVI CHAI Foundation told us what to include and what not to include in the final report.” Dr. Eli Silver of the Foundation sent me a similarly emphatic answer: “Decisions about what was reported—and not reported—in the Guttman survey publications were those of the Guttman staff, not AVI CHAI.”

As to why the report didn’t include the interesting findings on Conservative and Reform identification, Hermann has this to say: “All those enthusiastically celebrating these findings ignore the fact that all we have is one question with no equivalent question that can assist us with verifying or disregarding its findings. It is too early to celebrate and certainly there’s no reason to doubt the motives of the people behind this survey.”

Case closed? Somehow, I’m not so sure that this will calm the doubters. Some of them think it is time to air their frustrations with AVI CHAI and be at open war with the Foundation. Expect updates.

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