Who Is a Reform Jew? In Israel, polls find them to be an elusive bunch.

AuthorRosner, Shmuel

How many Reform Jews live in Israel?

The proper answer to this question ought to be: Who cares? And yet some people do care, me included. Orthodox rabbis care because they fear Reform infiltration; pro-Reform activists care because they want the denomination's fortunes to rise in Israel; I care because of professional interest. Some care because Reform Judaism plays a significant role in Jewish life in America, and its adherents would like it to play a similar role in Israel. Can it succeed? This depends, among other things, on numbers. Hence, the repeated attempts to figure out the number of Reform Israelis.

My latest attempt to do such a thing was part of an ongoing study of Israeli Judaism under the auspices of The Jewish People Policy Institute, of which I am a director. Despite this and another large-scale JPPI study called "Rising Streams" by Dan Feferman, the "streams" in question being Reform and Conservative Judaism, we still can't figure out the exact number of Israelis who ought to be called Reform Jews.

Numbers matter in politics, and in Israel some religious matters, including this one, are political. If there are no Reform Jews in Israel, or very few, there is less reason to demand official status for Reform as a denomination, a status that would bring with it more state funding and prestige.

Alas, the numbers refuse to tell a coherent story. One study (Pew, 2015) finds few Reform Jews in Israel--about 3 percent, fewer than 200,000 people. Another study (JPPI's "#IsraeliJudaism," 2018) finds 8 percent. As usual with polling, the outcome often depends on what question is asked and how. Do respondents "identify" as Reform? Do they "support" Reform? Are they "members" of Reform? Is their synagogue Reform? But it also depends on other things, such as what the other choices are or what mood they are in when the question is posed.

Take, for example, one recent question we asked in a JPPI survey in order to accommodate, as The Times of Israel put it, "a group of Reform and Conservative leaders [who] complained of once again being left off the charts." The nature of the complaint was a little complicated, but bear with me. In recent years, Israeli polls that deal with Jewish religious sub-groups have attempted to measure them using two types of groupings. In one, we use the traditional terms Israelis commonly use to describe themselves. The answers divide the population into groups such as "secular," "traditional," "religious" (Dati)...

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