Jewish Journal


March 9, 2012

‘Lack of recognition in Israel raises some question about the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative’



Professor Ephraim Tabory of Bar-Ilan University discusses Jewish life in Israel.

The particular dress of Haredi men and women makes it hard to miss a Haredi Jew. Their presence in Israeli society is perceptually very salient. Their life style also dictates living together in concentrated areas. Because of religious restrictions, in particular Halachik decisions in the Haredi community prohibiting the use of Shabbat elevators that operate automatically without having to press any button, their expanding housing needs dictate settlement in new communities in relatively low rise buildings (rather than constructing tall multi-family structures to meet family growth in the community of origin). The nature of religious conflict in Israel leads the press to focus on the religious issues that develop in the new communities as the influx of Haredi Jews leads to new religious demands in those communities. All this is to explain why the impression that one can receive from following the Israeli media is that there is a very large number of Haredi Jews in Israel indeed. This impression is bolstered by the fact that religious issues in Israel dealt with on the political level increasingly divide Haredi from non-Haredi Jews rather than religious (as a more general, and less homogeneous category) from nonreligious Jews.

Conservative and Reform Jews, on the other hand, are indistinguishable from the non-Haredi Jewish population. It is difficult to distinguish the (albeit few) Conservative men who wear kippot from modern Orthodox Jews, and the dress of non-kippa wearing men, as well as the dress of Reform and Conservative women, is practically indistinguishable from the more general non-Haredi population. So could there be an equal number of persons who say that they are Reform or Conservative Jews on the one hand, and Haredi Jews on the other?  The answer to such a question has to be yes. My evaluation, though, is that it would be a gross misstatement to say that the actual number of committed Conservative and Reform Jews - persons who attend synagogue service regularly and who follow the practices and rituals of the respective movements, - comes close to the number of such committed Haredi Jews.

Since Haredi Jews are reluctant to participate in social surveys, one has to question the degree to which the data are accurate.Weighting the data (a statistical term) to compensate for non-response is based on the assumption of the researcher as to the share of the specific group in the population. I would assume that strictly Haredi Jews are underrepresented in social surveys. And then there is the question of what respondents mean when they tick off that they are Haredi Jews, or Conservative or Reform for that matter. Are these ideological responses indicating identification and/or affiliation with the relative movement? Or are they politically motivated responses?  This is an open question.

The relevant movements could provide an answer to the number of their members, if they so choose. Reform and Conservative congregations do have membership lists (as opposed to mailing lists) and they could provide fairly accurate data. They could also probably indicate what proportion of their membership actually attends services on a regular basis (as opposed to High Holiday attendance, or membership stemming from bar or bat mitzva celebrations. At least some of the Haredi groups that are organized around strong identification with their particular sects could also provide pretty accurate data if they wanted to.

Are the numbers of Conservative/Reform Jews in Israel growing? Why, and how?

My impression is that the number of Reform and Conservative Jews is not growing substantially, but in fairness to the relevant denominations, the question should be addressed to them. Considering how long the movements have been in Israel, one might have expected to find hundreds of Reform/Conservative congregations throughout the country if the ideology of Reform and Conservative Judaism really caught on. Clearly this is not the case. There is much more awareness of the movements now than there was in the past, but one has to ask why one would identify as a Conservative/Reform Jew in Israel. What religious or other needs are met by identifying as a Conservative/Reform Jew? This is the crux of the challenge for the movements.

Would these numbers grow faster if the Conservative and Reform movements gained more official recognition from the Israeli establishment? Or is it perhaps better for these movements to retain the position of an anti-establishment hub for Israelis frustrated with the Orthodox monopoly on religious life?

The question to ask here is why official recognition would affect the religious orientation of the Jewish population? Would official recognition lead to a better mesh between the religious needs of the population and what the movements offer? Are there persons who in their hearts are Conservative/Reform Jews but choose not to affiliate with the movements because they are not formally recognized in Israel? I doubt it. Official recognition could well lead to larger number of persons choosing to marry with a Reform/Conservative rabbi, but that is not necessarily related to movement growth. The Conservative movement adopted the Hebrew name of Masorti Judaism to place some distance between itself and the American (Conservative) movement, and in order to declare that it is the movement of the many Israeli Jews who characterize themselves as “masorti” (traditional). This does not seem to have led many of those persons to the movement.

The second part of the question assumes that people join Conservative or Reform Judaism as anti-Orthodox movements. That may well be a reason why people identify as Conservative/Reform Jews (question 1, above), but is that the basis for positive religious growth?

One might note an interesting development in Israel (also found in the United Sates) that relates to the first questions - the development of batei tefilla or houses of prayer for the non-religious (non-Orthodox) population. Prayer groups are developing at the grass roots level that involve the development of services that include classical Jewish texts and modern Israeli sources. Tel Aviv has a beach front kabbalat shabbat service in the summer months that attracts about 500 persons who greet shabbat in song and prayer as the sun sets over the sea. By and large, these prayer groups (developing at a faster pace than Reform or Conservative congregations) do not want to have anything to do with any established denomination, much to the chagrin of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. How these prayer groups will evolve is an open question, but their growth has not been hindered by lack of official recognition. 

Should these movements have strong associations with their American counterparts, or should they be independent and markedly different from the American Conservative and Reform movements?

I do not think that a specifically American identity aids the movements in being perceived as indigenous to Israeli society and responsive to the religious needs of the Israeli population. Conservative and Reform Judaism incorporate a degree of flexibility that really allows the members (and rabbis)  to determine the development off their movements and even specific congregations.

Since posting the new findings from the Guttman Center report last week, I have heard a lot of complaints from Israeli Conservative and Reform rabbis who suspect that these results were deliberately buried and not included in the final report. The most specific suspicions are aimed at the funder of the study, the Avi Chai Foundation, which many liberal rabbis in Israel believe to be unsympathetic to liberal Judaism. Do you share this suspicion? If so, why?

I am not familiar with the way the current study was conducted. In the past, Avi Chai took an active part in determining the questions that were asked in its surveys, and the presentation of at least some of the results seems to have been affected by the desire to show a range of continuity among Israeli Jews, rather than the division of Israelis into distinct, and mutually exclusive, categories. As a social scientist, I would expect the Guttman Institute to be fully transparent in explaining how the study was conducted and analyzed, and how the results were presented. I have much confidence in this institute and I imagine that they would be willing to answer any questions that one might have about the study.

The Conservative and Reform movements invest a great deal of effort in pushing forward their agenda via Israel`s Supreme Court - is this the right way for them to operate, or perhaps it`s a way to alienate Israelis and provide ammunition to those who believe that their version of Judaism is not compatible with Israelis` way of thinking?

Whether it is “the right way” to operate is really up to the movements to decide. It is up to the movements to determine how to allocate their resources (and what aspects of their activities to emphasize in order to obtain grants and contributions from those persons willing to provide them their necessary resources).

Having said this, lack of recognition in Israel raises some question about the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism worldwide, and so a political agenda that seeks more political acceptance can have a positive effect in general.

I will now add a seventh question: So what is the real religious problem in Israel at this time?

Good question! It is the growing gulf between Haredi Jews and the rest of the Jewish population. The religious (Orthodox) world has seen itself as the movement of Jewish continuity providing the underlying ideological justification of the State as a Jewish enterprise.  Following Statehood (and the efforts to establish the “new Jew”), the non-religious population became less antagonistic to Orthodox Judaism and to a substantial extent accepted it as manifesting the authentic Jewish tradition (with implications for non-acceptance of Reform/Conservative Judaism) even as it rejected its practices on a personal level. Major opposition to the Orthodox establishment revolved around the inequitable demands for material resources, but not a rejection of Orthodox Judaism per se. There is now a perception that the Orthodox world, and more specifically, Haredi Judaism, is trying to change the nature of Israeli society. “They are taking my country away from me” is a claim that can be heard among non-religious Jews, and even among religious Jews who reject Haredi Judaism as well as a more fundamental approach of Orthodox Judaism developing in parts of the yeshiva world. The upshot of this is the development of a reciprocal identity conflict that can seriously undermine the unity of the Jewish population in the long run.

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