Why the Reform Movement is so Unpopular in Israel

There is an old joke about a Jew who is stranded on a deserted island. When he is rescued, the rescuers are amazed to discover that he has built three separate synagogues. Why three? They ask. The man answers, “This one I belong to, this one I used to belong to, and this one I would never step foot in.”

Israelis have strong opinions and they seldom agree with one another. But one of the things I have learned as a new immigrant is that most Israelis agree that Reform Judaism is bad.

I understood why the ultra-orthodox don’t like the Reform movement. The ultra-Orthodox leaders aren’t big fans of anybody who doesn’t agree with them. What I couldn’t understand is why secular Jews don’t like Reform Jews.

So I asked them.

I can summarize secular Israelis’ opinions of Reformed Jews as follows: Homosexual female tefillin wearing rabbis leading services in English with guitars and a choir.

Secular Israelis may not practice Jewish rituals, but they know what Judaism is. After all, they have been to the Beit Knesset at least once on Yom Kippur or maybe to a Bar Mitzvah. There are no choirs and there are no female Rabbis in the Beit Knesset. A Reform Temple service looks more like a church to an Israeli than a Beit Knesset.

Since making Aliyah, I have been asked many times if I am dati or secular.  I HATE that question.  Why do I have to choose one or the other? In the USA, I was never asked that question. I prefer going to an Orthodox Shul, I wear a kippah and I wrap tefillin every morning. The only meat I eat is from the kosher butcher that is more than a 100 mile drive from my home. Still, I know that I don’t fit the definition of dati. I am comfortable driving on Shabbat to visit my in-laws.

My family in the USA consists mostly of Jews who belong to Reform Temples. Like most Jewish families in the USA, many of my relatives have married gentiles. What is amazing is that every single one of their children is being raised Jewish. But the only movement that has accepted them is the Reform movement.

Israel has a disconsonant approach to the Reform movement. The interior ministry recognizes Reform Rabbis. The Israeli Rabbinate doesn’t. What does this say to my family members whose mother converted to Judaism through the Reform movement? “You can immigrate to Israel but you can’t marry here.”

There is another old joke about a guy who moves into town and joins the shul. When they come to the kaddish prayer, half the congregation stands and the other half stays seated. The people standing yell at the people sitting to stand. The people sitting yell at the people standing. It is a huge balagan. The congregant wants to understand who is right so he travels to visit the old rabbi who used to lead the services. He asks the rabbi if it is the custom to stand during the kaddish. The rabbi answers no. So he asks if the custom is to sit. The rabbi says no. The man pleads with the rabbi to tell him the custom, because everyone  is yelling at everybody else. The rabbi says, “This is the custom.”

My brother married a Jew and they have three children. They go to a Reform Temple. The Rabbi is homosexual. They play an electric keyboard during services and the Rabbi gives a sermon using a microphone. My niece just celebrated her Bat Mitzvah by reading from the Torah in front of the congregation. This is all very strange to Israelis.

But to me it was incredibly beautiful and moving.

Niece's Bat Mitzvah
Niece’s Bat Mitzvah in front of Reform Temple. Will the Real Jews Please Stand Up.

The Reform movement has a dubious history. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Reform movement was anti-Zionist. Hitler taught them that they were wrong.

Now, it is leaders from the Reform movement in the diaspora that make up some of the strongest supporters of Israel.

I really don’t know if the Reform movement’s position on homosexuality or women wearing tefillin is right or wrong. It is not a major issue to me. I trust that the truth will come out with time. If I don’t want to see a woman reading from the Torah, I know where to go.

In the meantime, I just wish that we could stop yelling at each other.

About the Author
David Brent is a NASA engineer with a master's and bachelor's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology turned candy entrepreneur. He made aliya in the spring of 2013. David commutes between Israel, where his heart is, and Florida, where his business is.