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JPPI does not leave out Reform and Conservative: Half of Israeli Jews prefer mixed-seating synagogues

The survey addresses religious intensity not affiliation; It found half of Israeli Jews prefer mixed-seating synagogues
A Jewish Agency-supported Reform service in Israel. (courtesy JAFI)
A Jewish Agency-supported Reform service in Israel. (courtesy JAFI)

An article in the Times of Israel last week made several claims concerning the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Pluralism Index that ought to be clarified. The article’s headline argued: “Reform and Conservative Judaism left out of new Israeli pluralism index,” creating a false impression that JPPI excludes or omits Reform and Conservative Jews as it tracks trends related to Pluralism in Israel. There is nothing further from the truth. JPPI respects all Jews and has proved more than once, including last week, that it counts-in Reform and Conservative Jews.

The article’s claim, and the claim of some participants in the discussion at JPPI last week – most of them Reform and Conservative rabbis and organization heads – refers to a survey conducted by JPPI as part of its effort to establish a reliable Pluralism Index. The survey followed a common procedure in dividing Israeli society into groups according to age, religion, political affiliation, and more. Referring to Jews in Israel, survey respondents are categorized according to religious intensity – from “totally secular” to “Haredi” (Ultra-religious. All in all, the survey referred to seven such groups (not nine as the article erroneously stated).

Comparing JPPI’s survey to other surveys clearly shows that there was nothing unique about its way of grouping Israeli Jews. The Pew Research Center divided Israel’s Jews into four groups (Ultra-religious, religious, traditional, and secular). The Guttman-Avichai report had five: Ultra-religious, religious, traditional, secular not anti-religious, and secular anti-religious. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics usually has four. All of these surveys, and many others, do not count Reform and Conservative Jews as separate groups on the spectrum presented here.

There is a reason for that: religious intensity (do you observe, believe in God, belong to a religious community) is one thing; religious affiliation (is your religious affiliation Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform) is another matter. Put differently, on principle, Israelis who say they are “traditional,” or “religious,” or “liberal religious” (an option JPPI’s survey included) can be Orthodox religious or Reform religious, they can be traditional who practice Orthodoxy, or traditional who practice Conservatism.

So what is the nature of the problem your reporter raised? The problem is that Reform and Conservative Jews do not find a place for themselves in such groupings. As Rabbis Gilad Kariv and Uri Regev, and head of Israel’s Masorti movement Yizhar Hess argued during JPPI’s discussion last Thursday (had we wanted to exclude these groups, we would not have invited them) the way Israeli Jews are categorized into groups erases their constituents from the data, as if they do not exist. This is because when an Israeli survey says “religious” the assumption is “Orthodox.” When it says “traditional,” the assumption is “by Orthodox standards.”

This is a complaint we take seriously, and aim to resolve as we move forward, but arriving at such a resolution is not necessarily easy. Several surveys have attempted to do this by asking a separate question about religious stream affiliation. The Pew survey thus found that 2 percent of Israeli Jews identify with Conservative Judaism and 3 percent with Reform Judaism. Guttman-Avichai found that 8 percent identify as Reform or Conservative Jews. A survey by Menachem Lazar, the pollster JPPI works with, found as many as 12 percent of Israel Jews identify with these movements. The catch with these numbers is that most Israeli Reform Jews and a large percentage of Conservative Jews also identify as “Hiloni” – not religious.

Reform and Conservative participants in our discussion suggested that we include their movements on the spectrum of Israeli religiosity. It is an interesting suggestion that we need to consider. But there are problems with it. First, because it might modify the spectrum so that includes both apples (intensity) and oranges (affiliation). Second, because it will make JPPI’s survey different and hence incomparable to other surveys. Third, because it is not clear where on the spectrum they belong.

Yes, it is complicated. More complicated than the Times of Israel’s headline makes it seem. It implied that JPPI does not care about the Reform and Conservative presence in Israel, and perhaps even deliberately ignores their presence. In fact, JPPI dedicates a lot of thought and effort into trying to understand what their presence entails, how it evolves, and what it means for the future of Judaism in Israel. One of the questions included in JPPI’s survey this year contained an interesting and important data point on this issue (unfortunately, this data was not included it in the TOI report).

We asked Israelis to agree or disagree with the statement: “I prefer a synagogue with mixed seating of men and women.” The results – as Reform and Conservative representatives in our discussion were quick to notice – were quite interesting. More than half of all “secular” and “somewhat traditional secular” Jews in Israel agreed with the statement. Almost a third of “traditional” Israelis agreed with that statement. This means that about half of all Jewish Israelis prefer synagogue to have mixed seating – something Reform and Conservative synagogues offer and Orthodox synagogues do not.

I believe that this and other data made JPPI’s presentation of the Pluralism Index valuable and newsworthy. The question about the best, most reliable way to measure Reform and Conservative affiliation in Israel is also important. But it deserved a much more nuanced approach than the one presented by the Times of Israel last week.

Shmuel Rosner is a Senior Fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute and heads JPPI’s Pluralism Project.

About the Author
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv based columnist, editor and think tank fellow. He is a fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and the non-fiction Editor for Israel’s largest Publishing House, Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan-Dvir. Shmuel is Senior Political Editor for the Jewish Journal, and writes the popular blog Rosner's Domain as well as a weekly column for The International Herald Tribune/New York Times and for Israel’s Maariv Daily. Rosner was previously a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and was Chief U.S. Correspondent, Head of the News Division and Head of the Features Division for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He wrote for many magazines, including Slate, Foreign Policy, Commentary, The New Republic, The Jewish Review of Books, and others. Rosner’s book “Shtetl Bagel Baseball, on the Wonderful Dreadful State of American Jews” was published in Israel by Keter (Hebrew, 2011) and became a bestseller.