The Market for Religious Alternatives in Israel

The Market for Religious Alternatives in Israel

by Ephraim Tabory

 ARZA leaders and members are interested in the development of a strong Reform movement in Israel. We have already noted that the movement has encountered a generally apathetic response in Israel on the part of the general Jewish public. On the other hand, the movement has to compete with an alternative denomination, the Conservative movement, for the limited number of persons interested in a liberal form of Judaism. The movement does not seek to attract, or "convert," the 20 percent of the Jewish population in Israel who classify themselves as "religious" or Orthodox Jews. (Although from a theological perspective it should argue that Orthodoxy is wrong, movement leaders in Israel have quite pragmatically decided not to question the legitimacy of Orthodox Judaism.) It is the 40 percent of the population who are religiously "traditional" who constitute the greatest potential clientele, as well as the 40 percent who declare themselves to be nonreligious.

The level of Jewish ritual observance of the average Israeli Jew falls between that of Reform synagogue members and Conservative Jews who are not members of a synagogue in the United States.58 For this reason, some Reform leaders in Israel claim that most Israelis are Reform Jews although they don't know it. Israelis are selective in their religious observance, doing what they wish. Many observe some aspect of Shabbat and holidays, such as lighting candles in the home or conducting some form of Passover seder. Many observe some degree of kashrut in the home and fast on Yom Kippur. Life-cycle events, including circumcision, bar mitzvahs, and weddings, are by and large observed in a Jewish manner. These same people may well drive and handle money on Shabbat, observe kashrut selectively outside the home, and in general carry on a non-Orthodox lifestyle.

The difference between Israelis and Americans is that Jewish Israelis have no need for a religious movement to justify what they want to do. They just do it. As elsewhere, life-cycle events tend to attract more observance. For example, 87 percent of the population feel that a wedding ceremony performed by a rabbi is important, and most of them have no ideological difficulty coping with a ceremony conducted by an Orthodox rabbi. Feminism in Israeli society is still not yet well developed,59 and a wedding ceremony in which the woman plays a subordinate role and is "bought" by her partner does not bother women sufficiently to demand change at this time. The traditional orientation toward women in Israel has had an impact on the Reform movement internally, with regard to the limited roles that female members actually want to undertake in the synagogue as opposed to the roles they feel that women should be entitled to undertake if they so wish.60 The point is that an equal role for men and women in prayer services, which is emphasized by the movement as a matter of principle, is not yet important for most Israelis, and thus not an attractive feature that is leading to large-scale expansion at this time. Most Israelis do not want to attend synagogue on a regular basis, so it is not important to them which synagogue they do not attend.

Furthermore, with regard to weddings in particular, Israeli Jews are used to making do, and the rabbinate, when needed, is one of the many Israeli institutions that must be dealt with in the course of getting along in Israeli society. If state law requires that citizens do some things they do not like, they cope with it as yet another bureaucratic requirement.

In general, when Israelis say they are "traditional" (masorti), they are indicating that they perform less ritual than do the Orthodox. They may also be referring to an absence of belief (which contributes to their lower level of observance), but there is no indication at present that those who are non-Orthodox, and yet selective in their religious practice, are searching for a religious movement that would legitimize any belief they might or might not have, or that would justify, in religious terms, their degree of (or apparent contradictions in) ritual observance. While Jewish Israelis may be disturbed by religious based laws and requirements that impinge on their personal lifestyles, there is no desire to fundamentally rebel against the system..61 As Liebman and Don-Yehiya note, most nonreligious Jews in Israel have a positive orientation toward Jewish tradition; they simply draw the line at observing the religious commandments, and issues of religious conscience do not arouse them.62

This description particularly characterizes Sephardim, or persons of Asian/North African descent. Many Jews from an Oriental background accept Orthodox assumptions about the nature and requirements of Judaism. The highest percentage of respondents in the Levy et al. 1993 study who were at least mostly observant were from an Eastern background. Sixty-nine percent of those who themselves came from an Eastern country were at least "mostly observant." The style of prayer in a Reform synagogue is rather alien to Jews from an Eastern background, and these persons also tend (at least for the present) to have a more traditional orientation toward sex roles. They thus have the least incentive for joining the Reform movement. As a result, the movement is basically foreign to half the Israeli Jewish population. This situation might change in the future with increasing secularization and merging, or blurring, of ethnic lifestyles. Only 42 percent of persons born in Israel of Asian/North African descent say they are "mostly" or "totally" observant.

The basic problem the movement encounters in attracting those who identify themselves as nonreligious or secular is that they are asking people who do not give priority to their religious identity, or who even describe themselves as nonreligious, to join a religious movement. Non-Orthodox Jews in the United States who wish to express their Jewishness join synagogue movements that are unfettered by dogma and authoritarianism. These persons have a less particularistic orientation toward religion. Jewish identity in Israel, though, is taken for granted. There is little need for most persons to express Jewish identity in Israel through affiliation with any religious movement as there might be abroad.

The Reform movement realizes that its synagogue program in itself will not attract large numbers of Israeli Jews. The movement is seeking to develop community/cultural centers that will lead to movement growth. The center in Tel Aviv, for example, sponsors lecture and Jewish study series in addition to religious services, and rents space to other groups who wish to use its premises. The movement is developing a similar center in Yaffo that will also sponsor Jewish-Arab programs and has plans for seven other centers throughout the country. Thousands of Israelis participate in Reform movement study programs and encounter Reform institutions in this manner, even though they are not affiliated with the Reform movement.

The movement is now taking a market approach to develop programs that the population wants rather than sit back and wait for people to enter the synagogues. Individual synagogues and rabbis report interest in life-cycle observance by non-Orthodox religious Israelis, such as bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies discussed above. In 1997, about 250 couples who had no religious obstacle to having their wedding performed by an Orthodox rabbi nevertheless chose to be wed by a Reform rabbi. As many as 50 percent (and perhaps even more) of these couples prefer a non-Orthodox ceremony as a statement of their negative feelings toward the Orthodox religious establishment. Movement rabbis say that such couples nevertheless come to appreciate the positive aspects of Reform Judaism even if they had little initial interest in the Reform movement per se, and even if they do not continue to take part in movement activities on a regular basis. Other couples seek Reform marriages because of the involvement of one of the members in the Reform movement. Only a minority are interested in a spiritual, egalitarian, liberal marriage ceremony, though this is the way the movement seeks to market the "alternative" wedding service. (The movement's brochure advertising the Reform wedding service portrays a double ring ceremony on its cover.) One reason why more women are not interested in this may be because of the fear that a Reform service might raise questions about their marital status, and the personal status of their children, in the future. Official recognition of the rabbis in Israel would surely change this situation and lead to a significant increase in the number of persons choosing to be wed by a Reform rabbi.

Another activity of the movement, still in its initial stages, is the creation of a Reform educational system. The movement would like to increase its participation in the Tali school system. Tali (tigbur limudei yahadut, or enriched Jewish studies program) is a religious studies educational program first instituted in 1975 by Conservative parents in a Jerusalem school. The basic educational premise is to expose children in mamlachti (nonreligious public) schools to more religious studies in a noncoercive and non-Orthodox framework that is based upon pluralism and tolerance. Ten mamlachti schools were designated full-fledged Tali schools in 1996, and another ten schools had Tali programs. The Reform movement has one such school in Jerusalem with some 600 pupils. A Reform rabbi is assigned to the school. The other schools are either independent or more closely associated with the Conservative movement.

A problem with the Tali programs in Israel, from a non-Orthodox perspective, is that many of the teachers are either Orthodox or completely secular. Until now, the Conservative movement in Israel has been much more involved in the Tali program and in teacher training, and Tali officials perceive it to be a basically Conservative movement program. This may change with the appointment of Rabbi Michael Marmur as the new dean of Hebrew Union College in 1997. Under his leadership, the college is now involved in expanding its teacher training program and it intends to take a much more active role in Tali.

An additional educational program now undertaken by the movement is the establishment of a network of Reform kindergartens. Some of the students for the Tali school in Jerusalem are drawn from the prekindergarten classes run by the Reform synagogues Kol Hanshama and Harel in Jerusalem, and the pre-kindergartens functioning in Bet Shmuel and at Hebrew Union College. This is an attractive program because quality education is a product that Israelis very much desire for their children. Parents are willing to pay substantial sums for a high quality educational experience and are not deterred by a limited number of religious elements in the curriculum, as long as the program is noncoercive. The movement has some difficulty funding this program, but it promises to be a very rewarding program for attracting members in the future. The educational program of the movement, like the youth movement, is currently being reorganized.

As a liberal Jewish movement, Reform Judaism faces organizational "competition" from the Conservative movement for resources and members. The Reform movement is most identified by the general public as the champion of protest against the Orthodox. The Conservative movement in the past has suffered from a lack of organizational identity--people have used "Reform" to indicate all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism. (The Conservative movement changed its name in the past to distinguish itself from the American Conservative movement, and more recently it has changed its name again to distinguish itself from the Israel Progressive Movement.) As noted, the Conservative movement is currently more involved in the Tali school movement, and it has a small but rather successful youth movement. While the personal religious behavior of the members of the two movements may not differ much, the Conservative movement proclaims itself to be halakhic. For this reason it may have a better chance of being accepted as a liberal religious movement in Israel, whereas the Reform movement is still viewed with some skepticism as a religious movement. (Some guests at Reform bar and bat mitzvah celebrations occasionally express surprise to find that the "Reform really are religious.") The relevance of this is that Israelis who are seeking a liberal religious movement that also offers family seating and equality between men and women (found in most but not all Conservative synagogues), but that is closer to traditional Orthodoxy, might be more attracted to the Conservative movement. The latter is somewhat less stigmatized than is the Reform movement.

Most Reform leaders would welcome closer cooperation with Conservative leaders and the formation of one liberal religious movement in Israel. They feel that there is room for only one liberal non-Orthodox movement in Israel, and that such a movement could be sufficiently flexible to incorporate the range of observance found in both Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel. This would require the adoption of a new name, and institutional separation from the parent movements abroad. Rabbi Richard Hirsch, a strong believer in one liberal religious movement in Israel, has said that he would be willing to undertake the struggle within the Reform movement to enact this change, but he has not found anyone in the Conservative movement who would be willing to conduct the struggle on that side.

In fact, a merger between the movements at the present time is inconceivable because of the Conservative position. Many Conservative leaders object to Reform Judaism on an ideological level, even as they are willing to accept the principle of religious pluralism. Conservative Jews view their movement as halakhic and are opposed to accepting a movement that has negated halakhah. Related to this is the (largely unrealistic) perception that their movement has a greater chance of receiving some official recognition in Israel because of its halakhic stance.


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