Poll: 7.1 Percent of Israeli Jews Define Themselves as Reform or Conservative

Israeli Supreme Court to hear petition by Reform and Conservative Jews seeking state recognition of their movements.

Some 7.1 percent of Israeli Jews define themselves as Reform or Conservative, according to the soon-to-be-released Israeli Democracy Index for 2013.

This figure might sound surprisingly high, considering that there are only 110 Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel. But it is actually slightly less than the figure found by a different survey published last year: In that survey, 8 percent of Israeli Jews considered themselves Reform or Conservative.

The latest Israeli Democracy Index survey, commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute from Chanan Cohen and Prof. Tamar Hermann, took place in April and May of this year. It questioned 854 Jewish respondents who comprise a representative sample of Israel’s adult Jewish population.

One of the questions was, “Do you feel that you belong to one of the denominations of Judaism and if so, to which one?” The survey found that 3.9 percent of respondents felt an affinity to Reform Judaism, 3.2 percent to Conservative Judaism and 26.5 percent to Orthodox Judaism. The rest said they felt no connection to any denomination or declined to respond.

The survey, which Haaretz has obtained, does not state the extent of the commitment the respondents felt toward their chosen denomination.

The previous survey − “A Portrait of Israeli Jews,” published jointly by the Avi Chai foundation and IDI − found that 4 percent of Israeli Jews viewed themselves as Reform and another 4 percent considered themselves Conservative. But when asked about religious practice, only a minuscule 1 percent of all respondents said they prayed or regularly attended religious services in a Reform or Conservative synagogue; another 3 percent did so “frequently.” Fully 69 percent of Jews said they never visited a synagogue belonging to either of these denominations, while a relatively high number ‏(26 percent‏) said they did so “rarely.”

The 2013 survey does not include such data on practice.

An entire section of the 2013 survey deals with Reform and Conservative Judaism, and it attempted to discover the positions that Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel hold. Two-thirds of the respondents who said they considered themselves Conservative also defined themselves as “traditional” according to the accepted definition of the term in Israel. In contrast, the Reform respondents were divided equally between those who considered themselves “traditional” ‏(41 percent‏) and those who considered themselves “secular” ‏(41 percent‏). About 10 percent of the respondents in each group defined themselves as “religious.”

The survey revealed that respondents who considered themselves Reform tended to express positions that were social-democratic and politically left-wing, while the Conservative respondents’ positions were centrist, more in line with the rest of the population.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a petition by Reform and Conservative Jews who are seeking state recognition of their movements and public funding. About two weeks ago, the state told the court that it intended to undertake a wide-ranging reform of religious services that would eliminate state-appointed neighborhood rabbis and instead allow communities to receive state funding for rabbis of their own choosing, including non-Orthodox ones. This would be another stop on the road to recognizing Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel.

The petitioners’ representative, attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski, said ahead of the hearing that she would ask the court for a temporary injunction “that would obligate the state to turn its declarations in principle about egalitarian funding of religious services into a reality soon.”

"The survey results show that the non-Orthodox movement is establishing roots in Israeli society and can no longer be seen as marginal or extrinsic," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

"Despite the hurdles posed by the state and the Orthodox establishment, the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis identify directly and clearly as Reform and Conservative Jews demonstrates the potential in Israel for liberal and egalitarian denominations," he added.

Tess Scheflan
Tomer Appelbaum