Reform and Conservative Judaism Have Failed in Israel. And It’s Their Own Fault

Liam Hoare

Liam Hoare

Freelance writer based in the United Kingdom

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~ Also by Liam Hoare ~

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Leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel tend to blame everyone but themselves for the movements’ failure to take hold. It’s time for a fundamental shift in strategy.

Over the last century, Reform and Conservative Judaism have met with enormous success, first becoming the dominant forms of Jewish observance in pre-Holocaust Central Europe, and then becoming the largest Jewish denominations in the United States. Yet they have largely failed in Israel, where their adherents are few and their influence over Jewish society marginal at best. The question is, why?

It is undeniable that the Reform and Conservative movements do have a presence in Israel, where Orthodoxy remains the only recognized, state-sponsored form of Judaism. A 2013 Israel Democracy Institute study found that four percent of Israeli Jews feel they belong to the Reform branch of Judaism, and 3.2 percent to the Conservative branch. There are established Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel’s metropolitan centers, including the trendy Beit Daniel in northern Tel Aviv, where Yair Lapid observes Yom Kippur. The Reform movement has also founded two kibbutzim—Lotan and Yahel—in Israel’s south.

Moreover, over the last 40 years, Reform and Conservative Judaism have had a degree of cultural influence as an alternative to traditional Orthodoxy, although the scope and reach of that influence is a matter of dispute. In liberal, middle-class communities, Israelis are using Reform and Conservative synagogues for bar and bat mitzvahs, as well as holiday celebrations. Moreover, a new wave of spiritual teachers are emerging who either got their start in non-Orthodox movements or were inspired by them; teachers who Yossi Klein Halevi, Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Like Dreamers, calls “Israelis who are trying to reclaim Judaism on their own terms.”

But having a presence—and achieving occasional victories in the Supreme Court and the public debate—is not the same as being a successful religious movement. Put simply, the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements have not succeeded in shattering the secular-religious dynamic that defines Israeli society. Only 75 Conservative congregations exist in a country with 6.2 million Jewish citizens; the Orthodox monopoly on religious life stands; and the Reform-supported campaign for a more egalitarian arrangement at the Western Wall failed to gain traction with the Israeli public.

Children participate in Friday night services at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Children participate in Friday night services at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

To find perhaps the strongest proof of this, one need look no further than the Knesset. The Jewish Home, United Torah Judaism, and Shas parties explicitly represent Orthodox interests; but no political party has taken up the Reform-Conservative cause in any serious way. The political Left and Center—Labor, Meretz, and Yesh Atid—fight for civil rights, not religious rights for non-Orthodox movements. Indeed, as Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz correspondent and columnist, pointed out to me, Yair Lapid chose Shai Piron, “an Orthodox rabbi who’s not a fan of Reform and Conservative Judaism,” to be number two on his party list and then Education Minister. “What does that say?” he asks.

To answer this, Israeli Reform and Conservative leaders will usually point to the Orthodox monopoly over Israel’s religious institutions as the reason for their lack of success. But this is a somewhat simplistic and incomplete explanation. In fact, the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel is the result of historical forces that go back as far as 19th century Europe. At that time, Jews who sought to assimilate into modern, liberal societies without losing their Jewish identity turned to Reform and Conservative Judaism. Jews who rejected this in favor of a particularist national identity turned to Zionism. And in the modern State of Israel, where the ancient Jewish community was reconstituted not in a synagogue but in a state, Zionism has triumphed, leaving the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements marginalized and largely irrelevant.

Put simply, in a modern Hebrew and Jewish state, Israelis have yet to feel the need for Reform and Conservative Judaism’s brand of synagogue-based, middle-of-the-road, Protestant-style religiosity, which are essentially identity and community-oriented solutions to life in the Diaspora. But Israel is not the Diaspora, and the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements have yet to adapt themselves to this reality.

The problems faced by Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel are rooted in the founding of the state. For the most part, Israel was created by Eastern European Jews who either retained a traditional way of life or simply became secular Jews without a specific affiliation.

As a result, says Fania Oz-Salzberger, a professor at the University of Haifa’s Faculty of Law and Faculty of Humanities, “When the rules of the game were established at the establishment of the State of Israel and the first constitutional legislation, the only game in town was Orthodox Judaism. Ben-Gurion and the First and Second Knessets did not have any progressive Jewish religiosity to take on board” when they established the “status quo” with the Orthodox community that still exists today. Progressive Judaism “was simply not around. It was being played out in the United States. It was murdered with the German community by the Nazis. It was not represented in the Israeli public sphere, so it was a non-issue.”

As a result, Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel were hampered from the very beginning. They were absent not only when the Orthodox monopoly on religious life was established, but when the hiloni, masorti, dati, Haredi—“secular, traditional, religious, ultra-Orthodox”—stratification that makes up Israeli society entrenched itself. The progressive movements, far from being part of the Israeli story from its inception, are post-foundation transplants, making it harder for them to establish themselves.

Oz-Salzberger is right that the absence of Reform and Conservative Judaism from Israeli religious life is due in part to the Holocaust, which devastated the community of liberal, assimilated German and other Western European Jews who, had they made aliyah en masse, could have altered the composition of Israel’s social fabric. In addition, there has never been any large-scale aliyah from the United States; where, unlike other Diaspora communities, the majority of Jews are affiliated with the Reform or Conservative movements.

A woman and a man attempt to pray together at the Western Wall. Photo: Tal King / flickr

A woman and a man attempt to pray together at the Western Wall. Photo: Tal King / flickr

Yehudah Mirsky, author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution and Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, described this as “a tantalizing ‘what if?’” What if “half a million to a million Reform and Conservative Jews had come on aliyah with their congregations, with their communities; and, with that demographic heft, tried to build themselves? Because there’s no substitute for being in Israel and being on the ground.”

There is another, perhaps even more important factor at work: Reform and Conservative Judaism were not represented in the Zionist spectrum of ideas for quite some time. For the most part, their early attitudes toward Zionism were intensely ambivalent. Reform Judaism, for example, was essentially a form of Protestant Judaism for German Jews, and its origins and adherents were, for the most part, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist.

The two movements were, in many ways, opposites. Reform Judaism wanted Jews to assimilate into modern society while retaining their religious identity; Zionism believed that the “Jewish question” was a national one. Reform Judaism wanted Jews to be citizens of the Mosaic faith; Zionism wanted them to be Jewish citizens of a Jewish state. Reform Judaism was predicated on a blending of identities and a moderation of religious fervor; Zionism utilized and even maximized that fervor to create a mass movement that could construct a state.

Reform Judaism and Zionism, in other words, did not get along for a very long time. Reconciliation between these two systems of belief and ways of life has occurred, and Reform Judaism essentially abandoned its anti-Zionism in the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, the ideological schism has never been fully resolved.

On top of that, Reform and Conservative Judaism were never present in Sephardi Jewish communities in the Muslim world, where, as Mirsky notes, “Traditional Jewish life didn’t collapse in that same way. Principled, ideological, widespread modernization, driven at times by people who genuinely wanted to undo traditional Jewish life, didn’t happen.” That half of Israel’s Jewish population is Sephardi cannot be dismissed as a factor in Reform and Conservative Judaism’s lack of appeal.

In other words, while all the various political, religious, demographic, and historical forces that formed the State of Israel were at work, Reform and Conservative Judaism were noticeably absent—and they paid the price.

The relationship between Israel’s founding and the problems of Israeli Reform and Conservative Judaism seems especially important when you consider the impact the Orthodox monopoly on religious life has had on Israeli society. On matters of marriage and divorce, religious burial and conversion, kosher certification, kashrut supervision, and authority in the rabbinical courts, it is the Orthodox—and only the Orthodox—who have the state-sanctioned right to administer these rites, rituals, and institutions.

“I think that the reason Orthodoxy has been able to have so much power in Israel is because it has enjoyed so much government funding and recognition,” Anat Hoffman, head of the legal and advocacy wing of Reform Judaism in Israel, told me.

At any given moment, I can show you how irreversible government resources such as land, money, and media are given to Orthodoxy at public expense. The result is, for Israelis there is just one product on the shelf, just one way to be Jewish. My claim is that there many ways to be Jewish. People in the Diaspora know that, and we should open up the market of ideas and allow us to compete.
If we were to blame for everything, I would be the first to say that we have not been accessible, relevant, and authentic. But the truth is, when Israelis are exposed to us, they see that we are relevant, affordable, and accessible.

Ruth Calderon, a Member of Knesset for Yesh Atid and founder of ALMA, a secular educational institution dedicated to renewing Hebrew culture, believes that if Reform and Conservative Judaism were given access to the same resources as the Orthodox, they would flourish. In Israel, the reason Orthodox Judaism is “the only legitimate way of celebrating Jewishness comes down to the fact that 2.7 billion [shekels] a year is spent on Judaism and all of it on Orthodoxy,” she told me.

It is true that the allocation of state resources towards Orthodox over non-Orthodox movements matters more in a country with an economic and class structure that does not exist in the American Diaspora; as well as a higher tax burden out of which Israelis already pay for the Orthodox establishment. Most Israelis are simply not in a position to pay synagogue dues to establish a community, which is not true of an American Jewry that is overwhelmingly middle-class.

That being said, the real question is whether the Orthodox monopoly has created the situation in which Israeli Jews believe Orthodoxy is Judaism and Judaism is Orthodoxy, or if it’s a two-way relationship: That the Orthodox monopoly continues to exist because Israelis are not searching for another form of religious Judaism. If so, then the Orthodox monopoly and Israeli attitudes towards Orthodoxy are mutually reinforcing, which explains to some extent the inability of non-Orthodox Judaism to break through.

“You’re saying people go to the supermarket, there’s only one product on the shelf, and they buy it because they learn to love it,” Hoffman said when I put this proposition to her. “We say, ‘No, they did not choose it.’ Of course if we had many products on the shelf, chances are that most Israelis would choose the Orthodox product. But here’s the thing: Orthodoxy would change because they will have a kick in the butt and would have to have some competition, and also many Israelis would choose other products.”

“That’s very true, but that’s a cop-out!” Pfeffer told me.

What kind of an excuse is that? When the Reform and Conservative movements began, they challenged the Orthodox hegemony and had some very limited success. But if you just say, “The Orthodox are so powerful and we have to try and make them less powerful,” that’s not going to happen just by attacking the Orthodox. The only way to change the perceptions of Israelis is to present an alternative and they haven’t done that.

Hillel Halkin, whose books include Letters to an American Jewish Friend, also believes the Orthodox monopoly is “a very convenient way” for non-Orthodox denominations “to explain their failure.” It is true, Halkin told me, that Reform and Conservative Judaism are “victims of discrimination in terms of government recognition and funding,” which is an impediment “in terms of their ability to carry on certain functions such as performing marriages and divorces.” But Halkin questioned the wisdom of Reform and Conservative Judaism’s decision to turn their backs on the campaign to separate synagogue and state, and to seek state funding instead. “There’s so much feeling against the synagogue-state nexus,” he said,

That for Reform and Conservative to become part of that system, buy into it, and put themselves on a par with the Orthodox, opening them to the same kind of corruption and complaints, wouldn’t really work to their advantage. It would, if anything, tarnish their public image. Does Anat Hoffman really want to be involved in coalition politics so Reform and Conservative can get money? What does she think she’s going to look like as a result? I think the Reform and Conservative movements have a definitive advantage in Israel by being outside of the establishment, by being able to say that they are not part of this corrupt system. To want to buy into this system seems to me to be senseless.
There is also a strong cultural gap between Israel’s non-Orthodox denominations and Israeli society in general. When they finally arrived in Israel in the 1970s, Reform and Conservative Judaism came “with a strong American accent. It was a considered a little meshuga, out of bounds,” Oz-Salzberger said. “Seculars like me were saying, ‘I don’t really need this, because I have my secular Jewish culture as an Israeli. Reform and Conservative Judaism is far more needed for Diaspora Jews who don’t have Tel Aviv, the kibbutz, the Hebrew language, the Israeli public sphere, and so on.’ It remained that way for many years.”

According to Pfeffer, one of the problems faced by Israeli Reform and Conservative Judaism was that “when they did finally arrive with a real motivation to play a role, their mistake was that they failed to be Israeli enough. They were much more American, and religion in America is so different from religion in Israel in every possible manner that they were losing before the battle even started.”

There is no doubt that Israeli Reform and Conservative Judaism have been hampered by their American origins—in particular, because American Jewish life is oriented around the synagogue as the center of any Jewish community, a structure that does not exist in Israel. “In America,” Mirsky explained to me, “Mordecai Kaplan, when he created the idea of the synagogue as community center—as a place for study, for prayer, a social space for community events, the gymnasium, the classroom—was doing it in order to recapture the vanished Jewish kehilah [“community”] and, as his movement said, reconstruct it in very different circumstances.”

The synagogue model of Jewish life is an excellent idea that works well in the Diaspora, where the society around you is secular and multicultural. In effect, the synagogue becomes the nucleus of the community and thus of all Jewish life. This model, however, is irrelevant to Israeli life. “As far as Israeli society goes, the pre-modern kehilah has already been reconstituted and restructured as a nation-state,” Mirsky continued. “The whole country is, ostensibly, a community center.”

Reform Jews from the Kol Haneshama kehilah in Jerusalem’s Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood sing and dance as they carry Torah scrolls during the celebration of Simchat Torah. Photo: Oren Nahshon / Flash90

Reform Jews from the Kol Haneshama kehilah in Jerusalem’s Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood sing and dance as they carry Torah scrolls during the celebration of Simchat Torah. Photo: Oren Nahshon / Flash90

“I live in a giant synagogue and community center called the State of Israel,” Klein Halevi told me. “I wake up in the morning and there’s the newspaper delivered to my door, and I feel like that’s my daily synagogue bulletin. I’ve got community coming out of my ears. I’ve got so much Jewish input just by reading the newspaper in the morning; not all of it good, but it’s my community.”

Israelis, in other words, do not have to go to synagogue to find their Jewish life. Jewish life is all around them, in all its political, social, and cultural facets. “More and more,” says Halkin,

Reform and Conservative Judaism in America is trying to integrate itself with political and social liberalism by emphasizing things like Judaism and its relationship with environmentalism and Jewish attitudes towards sexual egalitarianism, which Israelis don’t need Judaism for. An Israeli who wants to be active environmentally doesn’t need to work towards Judaism. Israelis can take whatever political and social stances they want without the help of Reform and Conservative Judaism. This is true in America too; but in America, someone who wants to express themselves Jewishly is going to go through a synagogue and look for their political values in those of Judaism. Israelis feel this less so.

The sheer Americanism of Reform and Conservative Judaism also comes through in their political engagement. Women of the Wall, for example, was not a Reform initiative, but it was supported by them, and is led by Hoffman. The group sees equal access to the Western Wall as a civil rights issue. It speaks in the American language of civil rights, and uses classic tactics pioneered by the American civil rights movement in order to challenge Orthodox authority over the site. Naturally, American Reform and Conservative Jews support Women of the Wall in large numbers. They recognize and identify with their struggle.

Israeli Jews on the other hand, secular and religious, do not look at the Wall in the same way. Access to the Wall is a religious issue for them, and because Israeli Reform and Conservative Judaism have not been successful at a grassroots level, the consensus around Orthodox hegemony over the site has held firm. An Israeli political movement, it seems, simply cannot be built on a handful of synagogues. As a result, Women of the Wall is supported by feminists and political liberals, but has largely failed to gain traction among the secular public.

It is not only that Reform and Conservative Judaism serve a practical function that is not required in Israel. They also create and sustain a certain type of religious identity that is essential in the Diaspora, but has little or no relevance in a Jewish state.

“The Reform and Conservative movements,” Halkin told me,

Have been strong in liberal, democratic, Protestant countries. Their Jews have knowingly or sometimes unconsciously sought to model their religious behavior and institutions on the liberal Protestant churches. They have tried in democratic societies to find a way of identifying as Jews in a way that is consistent with the general values of the societies they live in, and by belonging to and being active in Reform and Conservative synagogues whose sense of religion in many ways can be compared to liberal Protestantism.
Israelis, in terms of looking for a socially acceptable means of Jewish identification in a non-Jewish society, obviously do not have this need. In that sense, Reform and Conservative do not appeal to them because it performs sociological functions in the Diaspora that are not relevant to the Israeli situation.

Ran Baratz, founding editor of the Hebrew-language conservative news site Mida, believes that Reform and Conservative Judaism are identity and community-based solutions for Jews who wish to remain Jewish in a modern society. Their development in the United States “was a social phenomenon. The development of Reform and Conservative Judaism was to offer something in between” Orthodoxy and assimilation. “You are still a Jew and you have Jewish friends, although you are no longer Orthodox. This became very popular.”

“In Israel, being Israeli covers all that. The national aspect of being a Jew is more emphasized, so there is no need for someone to look for an additional Jewish community,” he continued.

When someone stops being Orthodox, he does not feel that he is sincerely deprived of any Jewish center of identity, because he finds that in his Israeli aspect, the national aspect. Part of that is religious. For example, almost all Jewish Israelis will have Passover, fast on Yom Kippur, a Kiddush on Friday, circumcision, bar and bat mitzvah, they will marry Orthodox. They have around them whatever they need, whenever they need it. They do not have to create a special community because that’s Israeli life.

Mirsky echoed these comments, saying,

The issues in Israel are, What do you do with a Jewish state? How do you conduct a foreign policy? How do you construct a Jewish polity? How to you exercise power? How do you deal with ethnicity? But in America, it’s a different set of questions: How do you exist in a civil society in which your Jewish identity can be expressed, but it has to be on a low flame, maintaining a kind of distinction without being too distinctly Jewish? It’s a very different set of questions.

The Reform and Conservative movements, moreover, offer more moderate forms of religious expression that are not necessarily relevant to Israeli life, where identities—religious or secular—are more muscular, and expressed more clearly and forcefully. “Secular Israelis who are interested in Judaism and what it can give them,” Halkin said,

Are looking for religious passion, religious emotion, religious belief, and a religious explanation of reality that is consistent and provides an overall sense of meaning. This is something Reform and Conservative cannot provide. On the contrary, Reform and Conservative are forms of Jewish questioning. They came into being challenging the dogmas of Orthodoxy without ever being able to supply alternative dogmas of their own. All they can offer is hypotheses without religion. They cannot offer certainties, because they are built on innate questioning of certainty.

This is also connected to the issue of economic and class distinctions. “American Jewry is overwhelmingly upper middle-class. Israeli Jewry is multi-class. You have rich tycoons and a large number of poverty stricken people,” Mirsky noted.

In America, all the conversation about tikkun olam and social justice, it’s kind of a noblesse oblige. For Israelis, these are very primal struggles, where the oppressor and the oppressed are also Jewish. And it’s reflected in religion. In America, religion is middle-class; which is to say, it exists through a tamping down of enthusiasm and dialing down passion. It’s how we exist in America. Israeli religion is multi-class so you have a broader range of expression.
If anything demonstrates why Israelis have not yet found a need for Reform and Conservative Judaism in terms of identity, it is the existence of a strong, self-sustaining secular Hebrew culture.

This sector of society, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger explain in Jews and Words, has a national, cultural, and intellectual conception of Jewish identity. Secular Israelis are irreligious, but they also reside in a Jewish state, speak Hebrew as their mother tongue, and are attached to Judaism and its Hebrew sources. “To secular Jews like ourselves, the Hebrew Bible is a magnificent human creation. Solely human. We love it and we question it,” they write.

“We are attached to the sources,” says Baratz. “It’s a trivial thing for an Israeli to open the Bible. It doesn’t require anything—I can just read the Bible with my kids. I’m not religious, my kids are not religious, but we speak Hebrew—we just read the Bible. I don’t need to practice something or belong to a religious community to help me interpret my sources.”

“When you live in Israel and you speak Hebrew and it surrounds you,” says Calderon, “you have a feeling that you have enough Jewish identity just by living here, where the holidays are celebrated in the streets and the history and language are known by all. So while Reform and Conservative serve a need for Diaspora Jews, many Israelis don’t feel that they have the need.”

Calderon has been a leading figure in a small but influential movement among secular Jews over the past two decades: The return to the Jewish bookshelf, which Calderon calls the Jewish renaissance. Through secular houses of learning and study groups such as ALMA and BINA, an intellectual community of secular Israelis is going back to the foundational texts of Judaism in a way that is non-practicing, pluralistic, and compatible with modern, secular values.

Conservative Jews pray as they gather for the mournful holiday of Tisha B'Av at Safra Square in Jerusalem, July 15, 2013. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90. 

Conservative Jews pray as they gather for the mournful holiday of Tisha B’Av at Safra Square in Jerusalem, July 15, 2013. Photo: Yonatan Sindel / Flash90.

“Think of the impact that Calderon had in her inaugural speech in the Knesset when she pulled out a Talmud and started learning. That’s never happened before publicly in the Knesset,” Klein Halevi told me. “None of the Orthodox Knesset members ever took out a Talmud and started studying publicly and inviting fellow Knesset members to study with them; and here, it was a non-Orthodox woman from Yair Lapid’s party who created the precedent.”

The important thing about the return to the Jewish bookshelf is that, while religious people do participate in it, it is not in itself religious. It is a national-cultural phenomenon, a secular reclamation of Jewish texts that at some point became the sole possession of the Orthodox. “It is secular Israel trying to reconnect with its own deep historical, cultural resources, without trying to simply turn back the wheel,” Mirsky told me.

“When you talk about being a cultural person, when you are in England you know Shakespeare, and Russia Tolstoy,” Calderon explained.

When you are a Jew, you’re supposed to know your Mishnah, Talmud, and Kabbalah. It’s a matter of culture to not give up the past when you want to go forward; but the past is a culture, it’s not necessarily a religion. This movement is a chance to come and see what was lost, which is to be educated in a Jewish way, to be learned in classic Jewish texts, and not necessarily take it to becoming religious in one way or another.

Reform and Conservative Judaism do have a small role in the return to the Jewish bookshelf, but as Halkin pointed out to me, “Secular Israelis, because they come with Hebrew and an ability to read Jewish texts, don’t necessarily need the help of a non-Orthodox rabbi or teacher to approach these texts. They are very able to do so partly or entirely on their own, so that there is really no need for a Reform and Conservative synagogue to provide an alternative form of Jewish textual education in Israel.”

Despite their failure to grab hold of the Israeli public consciousness, however, Reform and Conservative Judaism have not completely failed in influencing Israeli society. “If the measure of success is the creation of a mass movement, then both Reform and Conservative Judaism have failed in Israel and almost certainly will fail,” says Klein Halevi. “But I see their historic role in Israel as acting as catalysts and as incubators for indigenous forms of non-Orthodox Judaism that haven’t yet emerged and don’t yet have a name, but will all at least owe part of their existence to these Diaspora imports.”

The status quo in Israeli society remains strong, and “Orthodoxy and secularism in Israel have really for the most part learned to live with each other,” as Halkin puts it. But the hiloni, masorti, dati, Haredi structure is not without its cracks. The return to the Jewish bookshelf is one example of Israelis seeking to enhance their Jewish identity outside of these distinct categories. But, says Mirsky, it is only one feature. The spread of New Age sects; interest in the Kabbalah; the engagement of writers, artists, and musicians with piyut (traditional religious poetry) and Hasidism; egalitarian modern Orthodox minyanim; and the Orthodox Tzohar movement are all examples of previously marginalized ideas and concepts gradually coming to the fore.

“There’s a growing hunger for spirituality in Israeli society,” says Klein Halevi.

Israel is a New Age superpower. Any New Age idea or technique simply takes root here; and there are good reasons why Israelis are spiritually hungry. We’ve lost our secular religion, which was Labor Zionism, and the substitute for it is an increasingly materialist society, and a society that’s under relentless existential pressure where we are constantly thinking about death. That’s the fertile ground for spiritual awakening, and many Israelis simply will not go to Orthodoxy for spiritual answers.

But they are not turning to Reform and Conservative Judaism, either. Klein Halevi notes that these non-Orthodox movements were “created under conditions of powerlessness and exile, and aren’t suitable to a sovereign people living as a majority in its own land in a post-modern culture.”

The existence or non-existence of imports from the Diaspora into Israel is really irrelevant in the long term. What needs to happen here is the creation of indigenous forms of non-Orthodox Israeli Judaism. The more that Reform and Conservative Judaism are superseded by indigenous forms of non-Orthodox Judaism, the more we can celebrate and appreciate the gift that they gave us.

We do not know what this new Israeli Judaism will look like. At the very least, we can say that it will likely exist outside of the synagogue-based model of Jewish life that dominates the Diaspora. It will return to classic Jewish texts. It will be Hebrew and Israeli both in root and expression. It will be egalitarian, pluralistic, and cross-communal, without political affiliation.

It will also be non-denominational. As Ruth Calderon puts it, separate denominations of Judaism seem to have little appeal to Israelis. “I’m not a great believer in denominations,” she said.

I think the energy should be put all together and that the state should give Jewish citizens different options to celebrate their Jewishness in ways that suit them. I do not think we need denominations, because any denomination always leaves someone else out. A denomination abroad is doing much of the work that the state is supposed to do in a Jewish state: Education, weddings, burial, and celebrations of the holidays. These things should be done by the state and not by denominations.

It seems, then, that the new Israeli Judaism will not be Reform or Conservative. It will be something new and indigenous to Israel.

To say that the Reform and Conservative movements have failed to take hold in Israel is not to negate their critique of Israeli religious life. The Orthodox monopoly is narrow, exclusive, and corrupt. It gives precedence to one stream of religious Judaism—a minority position in Israel and the Diaspora—at the expense of all others. And it does help create the conditions under which Israelis believe Orthodox Judaism is Judaism itself.

All of these things are true; and for more than 40 years, Reform and Conservative Judaism have been pointing them out, presumably in the hope that the status quo would finally collapse and non-Orthodox synagogues would spring up across the Jewish state. American Reform and Conservative leaders have done the same, complaining about their unequal status and frequently warning that their congregants will give up on Zionism if the Orthodox monopoly is not amended and their own religious identity validated by the state.

But it seems that it is not enough to state the obvious fact that the Orthodox monopoly is, generally speaking, a bad thing. Up to now, Reform and Conservative leaders in Israel have offered Israelis a model of religiosity and religious life that appears to be irrelevant to living in a Jewish state. There is no room for the synagogue as community center in a state that is the synagogue; no need for Hebrew interpretation and education among a Hebrew-speaking people; and no place for temperate religious practice in a place where vibrant secularism and pluralism are thriving.

It cannot be denied that Reform and Conservative Judaism are noble intellectual and religious traditions that continue to serve an essential function, providing a sense of community and meaning to millions of Jews in the Diaspora. But their Israeli branches have tended to offer answers that are relevant to the problems and questions of those Diaspora Jews, and these questions do not exist in a Jewish state. To succeed in their goal of forging a place for themselves in Israeli society, Reform and Conservative leaders must grapple with this problem, and find a way to be not only Reform or Conservative, but also Israeli.

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