Blog  Archive: Jewish Denominations In Israel

Archive: Jewish Denominations In Israel

By Sally Bronston, NFTY-SO President 5768-5769

If you asked Israeli Jews what movement of Judaism that they identify with, they might have to think about it for a second before giving you an answer. Israelis don’t think about denominations of Judaism the way we do in America.

For us, it’s automatic. We’re either, reform, conservative, orthodox, Chasidic, reconstructionist; we have a label for everything. However in Israel, the concept of a movement is not the same, as it is in America. More than half of all Israeli Jews consider themselves secular, or in Hebrew, hiloni, roughly 15%-20% describe themselves as ultra-orthodox, haredi, or orthodox, dati. The rest of Israeli Jews consider themselves masorti, traditionally observant but not as adamant about halacha (Talmudic law).

However, Progressive Judaism, the name for Reform Judaism in most of the world, has found its way to the holy land. The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) is a growing movement of both native-born Israelis and immigrants to Israel. The IMPJ currently includes 30 congregations around the country, as well as its lobbying branch, the Israel Religious Action Center.

The Progressive movement has become more prominent in Israel over the last few years, but it has certainly been an uphill battle, primarily Orthodox religious councils ruling on religious matters in society—marriage, divorce, burial, and especially conversion. The “conversion crisis” began in November 1996 when a Supreme Court case brought the issue of acknowledging non- Orthodox conversions in Israel to the forefront of Israeli society. In response, the Orthodox community introduced a bill in the Knesset that would prevent the Israeli government from recognizing non-Orthodox conversions, performed both in Israel and the Diaspora. After years of debate over this issue, the problem has still not been resolved. The reform and conservative communities did see a few court case victories, though, such as the Supreme Court accepting as Jews twenty-four individuals who had converted under the Reform or Conservative Movements, either in Israel or the Diaspora. Additionally, the Supreme Court’s acceptance of “leaping conversions”—where those who wish to convert study in Israel, but the conversion was finalized abroad—was seen as a major victory for The Progressive movement in Israel. Also, in 2005, Supreme Court President Judge Aharon Barak said in a non-binding statement that there was no legal precedent for the State to continue to refuse non-Orthodox conversions.

Another issue that the growing progressive movement has tackled head on is women’s rights at the Kotel. For the last sixteen years, Women of the Wall (WOW) has been fighting the battle to gain women the rights to wear tallitot, read Torah, sing, and pray at the Western Wall. In May 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision to give women those very rights at the wall. However, several bills were immediately introduced in the Knesset overruling the court decision—including one bill that would make the action of communal prayer by women punishable by a fine and seven years in prison. Currently, the law restricting women’s behavior at the Kotel remains.

Israel has a very different culture when it comes to Judaism. The hiloni (secular) of Israel usually don’t think twice about lighting Shabbat candles or keeping kosher—two mitzvot many Jews in America neglect. For many Israelis, being Jewish is about the culture and not about religion. Israel is a place where being Jewish doesn’t mean going to temple on Friday night, it’s about living in the land where our ancestors walked, hearing the hush fall over the country on Shabbat, and smelling the falafel in the Jewish quarter. Israel is a place where being Jewish, is just being.