Conservative synagogue in Herzliya
Hanukkah at the construction site of the new Conservative synagogue in Herzliya. Who is paying for all these new Conservative and Reform congregations? Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Tomer Appelbaum
Lighting candles at the new Conservative synagogue in Herzliya. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

It’s taken almost 35 years, but if all goes as planned, Torat Hayyim, one of Israel’s oldest Conservative congregations, will finally move into its permanent home this coming March.

The roof above the 500-square-meter facility is already in place, and the floor tiles are now being laid. But rather than wait until the final nail is hammered into place, dozens of members of the Herzliya congregation, impatient to get a glimpse of their new home, piled into the construction site a few weeks ago to hold their annual Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony.

It cost more than $1 million to fund the building, and as Ruth Ritterband, co-president of the congregation, knows firsthand, raising that kind of money in Israel for this kind of project is no small challenge, which is why most of the funding came from donors abroad.

“In the U.S., the concept of giving and fundraising is very different from here,” says American-born Ritterband, who held various senior positions in the Conservative movement-affiliated Solomon Schechter school network before moving to Israel. “There are expectations that you’ll give there to the synagogue, the federation, the JCC – and not only that you’ll give, but also how much you’ll give. There just isn’t a tradition in Israel of giving for buildings.”

Nor is there a deep-seated tradition of paying congregational membership dues here, as Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, knows all too well. “There’s something in their DNA that makes it hard for Israelis to understand the idea of having these institutions voluntarily funded,” he notes. Especially, he adds, when they see the government allocating 2 billion shekels annually in taxpayer money to the officially sanctioned Orthodox establishment and its institutions.

So if neither the government nor the public is willing to cough up the money to finance alternative religious institutions that are not recognized by the state, how is it that the number of Conservative and Reform congregations has grown dramatically in the past 15-20 years? And where is the money coming from to pay for the buildings and services they provide?

Services in a bomb shelter

Torat Hayyim may very well be the exception that proves the rule: Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Conservative and Reform congregations in Israel do not have their own permanent buildings, and in many cases, hold services wherever they can find space – sometimes a private home, and not uncommonly, the neighborhood bomb shelter. Only a fraction of these congregations enjoy the services of a full-time rabbi, as does Torat Hayyim.

But while the Conservative and Reform movements may still carry a foreign stigma in Israel, it turns out that more and more of their activities are being funded locally. Not in the traditional way through membership dues, but rather, through a fee-for-services model.

The heads of the Reform and Conservative movements prefer not to volunteer figures on congregational membership insisting that such data is misleading and doesn’t truly express the extent of their reach in Israel. If pressed, though, the non-Orthodox movements estimate that close to 20,000 Israeli families (about 10,000 each) pay membership dues to their congregations. (By American standards, membership dues are cheap in Israel, starting as low as 250 shekels per family, or about $70 a year, and going as high as 1,500 shekels per family, or about $430 a year.) “That’s not an important figure, though,” says Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative, or Masorti movement, as it’s known in Israel. “A modest estimate is that each of the movements has some sort of contact with at least 100,000 Israelis, and up to as many as 250,000 each.”

That contact is often made through the preschools they run around the country, which are not cheap by Israeli terms and have come to serve as a key source of income for the non-Orthodox movements. The Conservative movement has a network of about 30 preschools and the Reform movement has close to double that number.

Bar- and bat-mitvah ceremonies also bring in nice revenues, with two Tel Aviv congregations that primarily serve native-born Israelis – the Reform-affiliated Beit Daniel and the Conservative-affiliated Neve Tzedek – sometimes referred to as “factories” for such ceremonies. “Israelis don’t want to pay to be affiliated with a congregation, but they will gladly pay to be well served by us at critical moments, and that includes a fee of 3,000 shekels ($850) for a bar mitzvah,” says Kariv.

For weddings that are not even recognized by the Rabbinate, Israeli couples who prefer to avoid the Orthodox establishment have been known to dish out 1,500-2,000 shekels to have a Conservative or Reform rabbi officiate at their marriage ceremony. (Not to mention the added cost of undergoing a civil marriage abroad for those who want to have their legal status recognized in Israel.)

With demand for its services at such life-cycle events on the rise, Beit Daniel today funds 80 percent of its budgets from fees charged for services it provides (another 15 percent comes from mostly foreign donations and 5 percent from the national movement.

“Just look at the Pew survey,” says Meir Azari, the head rabbi of Beit Daniel since its establishment in 1991. “Even American Jews are beginning to ask themselves why they should pay $3,000 a year in membership dues.” He was referring to a major survey of American Jewry by the Pew Research Center that was released in October 2013.

“If synagogues in America don’t begin switching over to a model like ours,” he warns, “they will eventually have big problems on their hands.”

About half of the Reform movement’s activities in Israel are now financed through “Israeli pockets,” according to Kariv, whereas in the Conservative movement, it’s about 35 percent. Unlike the Reform movement, the Conservative movement doesn’t include its educational activities in the calculation. “If we included them, it would be a much bigger chunk that’s financed here,” says Hess.

What could potentially relieve some financial pressure for the two non-Orthodox movements is the recent government decision, following a prolonged court battle, to pay the salaries of Reform and Conservative rabbis who serve regional councils. Today, there are 150 Conservative and 120 Reform rabbis living in Israel, although the majority of them are not active. The decision has yet to be implemented, but Kariv is optimistic that “by the end of this year, we’ll begin to get some money for our rabbis.”

Also following legal action, the government agreed five years ago to begin providing non-Orthodox congregations with state-funded prefabricated structures. A handful of congregations around the country – including two in Modi’in – have already moved into these new and improved facilities, and several others are now waiting in line.