Liberal Judaism in Israel

Different streams of Judaism in the Jewish state.

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Most affiliated Jews in the United States identify as either Conservative or Reform. But in Israel, for a variety of historical and political reasons, the reality is very different.

The Conservative movement in Israel, called the Masorti movement, was founded in 1979 and now includes 50 synagogue congregations and havurot (lay-led prayer and study communities). The movement has 50,000 Israeli affiliates of its congregations and national programs, and roughly 125,000 Israelis participate in their programming yearly. Israel is home to a Masorti kibbutz and a moshav (communal settlement) where many members affiliate with the Masorti movement, and where prayer services, lifecycle events, and communal celebrations are conducted according to Masorti principles. The Masorti movement has a youth movement, Noam, and a rabbinical seminary, the Schechter Institute, which ordains about five rabbis each year.
masorti movement
The Reform movement in Israel, called the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, includes 30 synagogue congregations, two kibbutzim in the south, and one village in the north. Noar Telem is the Reform youth movement. The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem grants degrees and trains Reform rabbis, and like the Schechter Institute, ordains about five rabbis each year.

Reform and Conservative leaders believe that the liberal movements could grow in numbers and influence, but that Israel's Rabbinate--an Orthodox institution that controls nearly all religious matters in the state--significantly curtails their activities.

Personal Status Issues

For example, the Orthodox Rabbinate has exclusive control over marriage between Jews in Israel, so marriages performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis in Israel are not legally recognized, and there is no option for civil marriage for Jews in Israel. Israelis who wish to marry in a Conservative or Reform ceremony have several options. They can marry in a private Reform or Conservative ceremony in Israel, and have a civil marriage abroad, which is then legally recognized in Israel. Or they can marry abroad in a Reform or Conservative ceremony which will then be recognized in Israel.

Conversion, similarly, is under the exclusive control of the Orthodox Rabbinate, which does not recognize non-Orthodox converts as Jewish. This means that non-Orthodox converts cannot marry in Israel. Change has been made, however, in terms of legal recognition of non-Orthodox converts in Israel for purposes of immigration.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that Jews who converted in any conversion outside of Israel are recognized as Jews under the Law of Return. Then in 1995, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy and public policy arm of the Progressive movement, won a precedent-setting case which ruled that Israelis who convert in a non-Orthodox conversion in Israel can be registered as Jews by the registrar of the Ministry of Interior, an act which has purely statistical consequences but is symbolically significant. 

Most recently, in 2005, IRAC won another case where the Supreme Court ruled that "leaping converts" who study for conversion in Israel but then complete the process abroad can be included as Jews under the Law of Return (unlike the 1989 decision which only recognized non-Orthodox converts who went through the entire process abroad). 

Despite their recognition as Jews for the purposes of immigration and registration, the Orthodox rabbinate continues to bar non-Orthodox converts from marrying in Israel and receiving a Jewish burial.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.