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Why the Reform Movement is so popular in Israel

With Israelis flocking in droves to Reform synagogues, there's not much time to worry about being unpopular

It seems only natural to entitle this response with the exact opposite of the title of David Brent’s article in Times of Israel last Tuesday. David tells us that Reform Judaism is unpopular in Israel. Not only is it unpopular, he tells us, but “most Israelis agree that Reform Judaism is bad.”

It is not clear on what basis he reaches that conclusion. All public opinion surveys in recent years have shown precisely the opposite, so one can only assume that his observations are based upon his narrow circle of acquaintances rather than upon any objective assessment.

Given his remark that “If I don’t want to see a woman reading from the Torah, I know where to go,” it is hardly surprising that he is not enamoured by the Reform Movement. That is perfectly fine and I agree that his place is elsewhere.

That having been said, his observation that Reform Judaism is unpopular with Israelis probably reflects the fact that, as he himself admits, he is a new immigrant and probably doesn’t know the scene here that well.

Those of us who have been here longer know that things are not so clear cut. Of course, there are secular Israelis who are prejudiced against Reform Judaism and believe that our synagogues are full of “homosexual female tefillin wearing rabbis leading services in English with guitars and a choir.” People who hold such jaundiced views are probably better going elsewhere in any case.

That a person should disparage “homosexual female tefillin wearing rabbis” probably says more about such an individual than it does about the rabbi, but that is another matter! (Incidentally, Bruria and Rashi’s daughters among others are reported to have laid tefillin.)

As a Reform rabbi who has lived in Israel for nearly thirty years, my own experience is totally different from David’s. It would seem that we live in two different worlds. At Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon we welcome so-called “secular” Israeli families, who approach us to celebrate their children’s Bat or Bar Mitzvah in our congregation. We hold such ceremonies every Shabbat morning and afternoon and don’t have a date free until October!

Our synagogue is full to overflowing for Seder Tu b’Shevat, for the Megillah reading on Purim, for our weekly lecture series and with children learning about their Jewish heritage.

Even though our wedding ceremonies are not recognized by the state, large numbers of Israelis turn to our rabbis in search of a chuppah that is both Jewish and egalitarian and in which the orthodox rabbinate plays no part. Unfortunately, I frequently have to turn couples away, because the date of their ceremony conflicts with another chuppah to which I am already committed.

Of course, what is true of my experience is also true of my colleagues all over Israel. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are exposed to Reform Judaism every year. For many of them, it is a welcome relief from a state-funded and coercive orthodoxy for which they only feel aversion and antipathy.

About the Author
Rabbi Boyden was educated and received his rabbinical ordination in London, England. Having served as the rabbi of Cheshire Reform Congregation for thirteen years, he made aliyah with his family in 1985. He has established Reform congregations in Ra'anana and Hod Hasharon and previously served as director of the Israel Reform Movement's Beit Din.