Israelis May Be Fed Up With Orthodox Establishment, but Few Are Joining Reform and Conservative Congregations

New study finds that 13 percent of Israeli-Jews self-identify as Conservative or Reform Jews, but less than one percent are dues-paying members. Still, the movements have grown, implying Orthodoxy is no longer seen as the only ‘authentic’ Judaism

File photo: Friday services at a Reform Synagogue, Ramat Gan, Israel, 2014.
Dudu Bachar

Only about 12,000 Israeli-Jewish adults – not even a fraction of a percent – are registered dues-paying members of Conservative and Reform synagogues, according to a study published on Monday. Roughly 7,500 are registered with the Conservative movement and 4,500 with the Reform movement.

On the other hand, the study, published by the Jewish People Policy Institute, found that about 800,000 Israeli-Jews (13 percent of the Jewish adult population) self-identify as Conservative or Reform Jews – 5 percent of them as Conservative and 8 percent as Reform.

This is the first time any estimate has been published of the number of Israelis who officially belong to Reform and Conservative synagogues in the country. In recent years, though, various studies have tried to estimate the percentage of Israelis who identify with these movements, the results ranging from as low as 7 percent to as high as 13 percent in this latest report.

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Explaining the discrepancy between the two figures, the report notes that paying synagogue dues is not part of Israeli culture, as it is in Jewish communities abroad. “Synagogues and organizational membership play a minimal role in Israel, as Israelis rarely ‘belong’ to synagogues (rather pay-per-service) or movements and much of what the organized Jewish community provides abroad is provided in Israel by the state, schools, or public spaces,” writes Dan Feferman, a fellow at the JPPI and the author of the report titled “Rising Streams: Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.”

Unlike their Orthodox counterparts, Conservative and Reform synagogues in Israel are not eligible for government funding. So to sustain themselves, they have little choice but to charge dues.

Fefferman notes that the growing number of Israelis who identify as Conservative and Reform can be attributed to the fact that so many of them have been exposed to non-Orthodox alternatives in recent decades through travel abroad and interactions with Diaspora Jews. It can also be ascribed, he says, to the growing contempt among Israelis toward the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate and the power it wields. The Chief Rabbinate controls most matters of personal status in the country.

Historically, the report points out, most Israelis would say “the synagogue I do not attend is Orthodox” – suggesting that they view Orthodoxy as the only authentic form of Judaism, even if they are not observant.

“Today, a significant and growing number of secular and traditional Israelis would also say they ‘do not attend Reform and Conservative synagogues,’” Feferman writes. “This means that Reform and Conservative Jewish practice are now seen as authentic and preferable by these largely secular and traditional Israelis, who engage with such Jewish practice primarily for lifecycle events and holidays.”

Although this change in attitude has not translated into hundreds of thousands of new dues-paying members for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel, Feferman writes that “it could mean that in the near future, as many as 20 to 30 percent of secular and traditional Israelis could similarly view Reform and Conservative Judaism as authentic and preferable forms of Jewish practice.”

The report found that 125 Reform and Conservative communities exist in Israel today, 56 of them with their own permanent synagogues. About 280 rabbis are affiliated with both non-Orthodox movements, 85 of them working in communal capacities. The two movements graduate between eight and 10 new rabbis each years. Both movements have small, but active, youth movements with a combined membership of roughly 1,800. These figures, according to the report, represent “significant growth from just two and even one decade ago.”

The Reform and Conservative movements, the report stipulates, have made their biggest mark on Israeli society through lifecycle events. Each year, rabbis affiliated with the two movements conduct approximately 1,000 weddings, more than 3,000 bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, about 400 conversions and close to 1,000 other events, primarily funerals and circumcisions.