Haredi-free Government Raises Profile of Reform, Conservatives

Non-Orthodox movements, still a minority among Jewish Israelis, have enjoyed an increasingly positive attitude from the government following successful public struggles.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

A flier featuring a list of synagogues in Holon was published over the past few days by the municipality, inviting residents to “take part in a moving experience of pleasantness and sanctity on Yom Kippur.” On the list, alongside an Ethiopian congregation, Chabad and a hesder (army-affiliated) yeshiva were the city’s Reform and Conservative congregations.

It’s only a flier, yet this official publication of the Holon municipality joins a number of precedents, both large and small, that non-Orthodox Jewish denominations are chalking up in Israel.

Only a few years ago, no official publication would consider including them; even now, what is surprising is that it passed so quietly.

The Reform and Conservative movements, the dominant ones in North America, have never managed to strike deep roots in Israel, and that remains the case. Strict secularists are not looking for Judaism even if it progressive, while the vast majority of Israelis who are looking for Judaism find it, according to opinion polls, somewhere between the ultra-Orthodox to modern Orthodox persuasions. The Conservative and Reform movements, according to their own reports, have 112 synagogues here - compared to 10,500 Orthodox synagogues, according to the Union of Synagogues in Israel.

However, surveys show that more and more Israelis are defining themselves as Reform or Conservative as these movements have scored major achievements recently in the political and legal realms.

The most prominent change agent appears to be the struggle of Women of the Wall, an organization that has won the backing of the Reform and Conservative movements abroad, even though it does not officially belong to either one. As the political and legal controversy over their prayer customs at the Western Wall heated up, gaining sweeping support in the United States, the Netanyahu government had to respond. The government, which includes no ultra-Orthodox parties, has gone out of its way to welcome the non-Orthodox denominations.

Some of the precedents have been set by the head of the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party, most of whose members are much more religiously conservative than he is: Naftali Bennett, the religious affairs minister and diaspora affairs minister. He has met in secret with the leaders of the Reform and the Conservative movements, and in June spoke in Jerusalem at a world convention of Conservative rabbis. Never has a religious affairs minister taken part in such an event, let alone address its members. In a fiery speech, he told the gathering that Israel is the home of all Jews everywhere, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular and ultra-Orthodox and that models should be found that will make Jewish people of all streams feel like family again.

Bennett hears about it

For this, Bennett was attacked by members of his own camp, including prominent right-wing Orthodox rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Ariel. But then Bennett took yet another groundbreaking step when he established an egalitarian prayer site south of the Western Wall. The area, which Bennett defined as temporary, angered Reform Jews and the Women of the Wall, who said it was an attempt to prevent them from praying at the main plaza. But Bennett is convinced the alternative site will soon receive official support from the Reform Movement, and that the Conservative Movement has moved closer to accepting it.

The third precedent Bennett set was his Rosh Hashanah greeting to Jewish congregations abroad, including hundreds of Reform and Conservative synagogues, in which he called on everyone to “put our hands together” despite the differences.

Still another step was taken a few months ago when the Ministry of Religious Affairs informed the Supreme Court that it was going to stop employing neighborhood rabbis, and instead grant financial support to local congregations and rabbis, including Reform and Conservative rabbis.

The big question is whether the Reform and Conservative movements can win over the man and woman on the Israeli street, alongside their political and legal victories. Activists are optimistic, especially in light of the survey by the Israel Democracy Institute this year that showed 7.1 percent of Jews in Israel defining themselves as Reform or Conservative.

However, the Israel Democracy Institute poll from last year found that 8 percent of Israelis defined themselves as Reform or Conservative (4 percent each), but when it came to practice - which respondents were not asked about in the 2013 poll - only 1 percent said they attended one of the movement’s synagogues regularly, 3 percent said they did so “frequently,” 26 percent said they attend “rarely” and 69 percent said they had never been inside either a Reform or Conservative synagogue.

But the movements see more evidence of progress in a recent article telling of Reform and Conservative women soldiers unable to pray according to their customs because of resistance from the military Orthodox establishment. The remarkable aspect of the article was that it was published in Bamahane, the official army magazine, which had tackled the subject even though it is considered taboo in the eyes of many Israelis, and not only the Orthodox.

Women praying at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters

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