Five Reasons non-Orthodoxy Has Been Slow to Take Off in Israel

How is it that the supermarket of liberal Jewish identities that exists in the U.S. failed to open branches in Israel?

Haaretz Staff
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Haaretz Staff

1. Hebrew worship, American accent

Undeniably, it has been immigrants from English-speaking countries who have blazed the trail of the Reform and Conservative communities in Israel. For many, their synagogues are second homes and their fellow congregants a substitute family for the ones they left behind in the ‘Old Country,’ with whom they worship, socialize, and celebrate holidays.

But the fact that in this ‘comfort zone’ much of the social life is conducted in English, has frequently put off the locals, who sometimes felt like outsiders when surrounded by fellow worshippers intoning Hebrew prayer in thick 'Anglo' accents. Presumably, as more second and third generation native-born Israelis grow up in non-Orthodox congregations, the problem will soon solve itself.

2. The non-Orthodox aliyah that wasn't

The photos of immigrants embarking on a flight from the U.S. are familiar – flag-waving, happy smiles and often as not, kippa-wearing and hair-covering. And this is not an optical illusion: It's estimated that 40-50% of American immigrants were Orthodox in the generation that arrived after 1967, vastly over-representing their 10% share of the U.S. Jewish population. Nowadays at least 80% of the families who make aliyah from the U.S. are Orthodox.

Clearly the Reform, Conservative and other progressive movements have failed to inspire aliyah in the 'facts on the ground' way Orthodox communities have done, and the religiously progressive demographic in Israel reflects exactly that absence, or sin of omission. However, one bright spark for the non-Orthodox streams comes from the statistics of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an immigrant assistance organization: According to their data, 60 to 65 percent of recent single immigrants describe themselves as non-Orthodox.

3. Refusing to join the club

Jews in the Diaspora see affiliating to a Jewish movement or congregation to find community and to express and preserve their Jewish identity. And the non-Orthodox denominational choices that are open to American Jews in particular allow each potential 'consumer' to find the rubric and atmosphere that fits them best.

Now, fly over to Israel and ask many Israelis what non-Orthodox Judaism is and they will telescope the denominational differences under the heading of “Reformi,” a word which often carries a dismissive tone. The supermarket of non-Orthodox Jewish identities lauded in the U.S. is also stymied by the relative failure of these Jewish streams to broadcast an authentic Israeli identity, even though many of their most prominent rabbis are Israeli-born.

Many Israelis simply don't feel any obligation to affiliate to a movement or to affirm a specific space for being Jewish unless they are Orthodox and need a shul for Shabbat. When life-cycle events or major holidays come up they're keen to have a meaningful experience and that's when growing numbers of secular Israelis turn to non-Orthodox communities that offer open and creative services. But they don’t necessarily feel that the natural follow-up would be to join as members.

4. Weekend's one-day - no time to pray

When it comes to winning over secular Israelis, the non-Orthodox movements are up against considerable odds for a very simple reason: The country’s one-day weekend. Although Orthodox Jews are well-trained at attending synagogue every week and resisting unholy temptations, secular Jews are not. Conservative and Reform congregations, therefore, need to work extra hard to persuade these Israelis to join them for Shabbat prayer services and give up the beach, a movie and whatever else they do recharge their batteries on their one day a week off.

While in America, there’s always Sunday for fun, in Israel, the first day of the week is a full-fledged workday. It makes sense, then, that many secular Israelis see regular Shabbat shul-going – the most common expression of religious affiliation – as too much of a commitment.

5. Unlike Diaspora Jews, Israelis aren't dying to affiliate

Jews in the Diaspora have an interment problem. Morbid it may be, but a prime reason that many Jews – particularly in the U.K. - affiliate with any of the recognized denominations, including the progressive streams, is the sky-high cost of a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery. This can easily come to $20,000 plus (and that's before the costs of the funeral itself). When you become a dues-paying member of a synagogue with a burial scheme, you (or rather, your family) don't need to pay this enormous lump sum at the moment of truth, as the cost is folded into an annual payment of around $100 a year. With fewer Methusalehs around these days, it's clearly the better value option.

In Israel, every Jew has the right to a free burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, so this trigger to consciously affiliate just doesn't factor. If you want to choose a specific municipal cemetery out of your residential area, you can get a plot for $2,500. But if you were thinking top-of-the-range Mount of Olives plot -with-a-view, start that savings plan – you won't be getting much change out of $50,000, no matter what congregation you belong to.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man prays alongside a tourist at the Western Wall.Credit: AP

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