An American Jewish visitor to our Israeli (NCT Base East) home wondered why, if there are so many non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, there are so few Reform ‘temples’ (sigh).
In fact, an immigrant from Antwerp came up with the best response: “American Jews are protestant Jews — Israeli Jews are Catholic Jews”.
What?! You say. No, his response made perfect sense. Allow me to elaborate.
In Catholic countries, there is one church — the Roman Catholic (literal meaning: universal) church. There is no competing ‘Liberal Catholic Church’ (okay, on the other side of the spectrum there are small traditionalist breakaway groups you could compare to the chareidim). The population spans a spectrum in observance from those who piously and diligently attend to every daily and weekly observance, via those who come to church once a week and otherwise may say some prayers, via those who come on a semi-regular basis, to the “twice-a-year Catholics” (Christmas and Easter), to those who only show up for life-cycle events. All of them are considered ‘Catholics’, good, bad, or indifferent.
In Protestant countries, if you had a fundamental disagreement with the established church (C of E, Lutheran,… depending on the country) and you found enough people who agreed with you the default option was to start a new prayer house of your own, which might grow into another denomination. At one level, this ‘unity in diversity’ has been a fount of strength for protestantism; at another level, it has been a source of fragmentation.
About half of the Jews in Israel (or their immediate ancestors) immigrated from Muslim countries. (They are often misleadingly named ‘Sephardic’ — as many of these communities are closer in ritual to the Jews of the Spanish Expulsion than to Ashkenazi Jews’ — but a more accurate term would be Yehudei Artzot haIslam [Jews from Muslim Countries].) These communities always operated on the ‘Catholic’ model: there was one ‘denomination’, it was religiously Orthodox, but was very tolerant of less-than-perfect observance on a personal level. As long as you respected the rabbi and the community elders, driving to the soccer game after Saturday synagogue services was/is no big deal — but nobody would think of packaging this as a new form of Judaism. Tell Jews like that about Reform Judaism — be it in Israel or in France — and the response will be basically ‘huh?’
In contrast, the birthplace of Reform Judaism was a very different country: Germany. It arose there in the early 19th Century as one response to a phenomenon that largely passed by the Islamic countries: the Enlightenment and its (mostly Ashkenazi-)Jewish counterpart, the Haskala. In response to its perceived early excesses, two new movements arose: on the one hand, modern-Orthodoxy — which combines Torah Judaism with an openness to secular learning — and on the other hand, Conservative Judaism, which as a movement tries to steer a middle course between Reform and Orthodoxy. While Reform- and Conservative-like congregations sprang up in other countries (e.g. the Neolog movement in Hungary, which in Israel would be called Masorti, see below), by far their biggest success story was the United States. Why? The first major Jewish immigration wave (post-1848) came from German-speaking lands, and thus (although a few Orthodox synagogues have existed in the USA since Colonial days) the “establishment” congregations became first Reform, later a mix of Reform and Conservative. When the Great Jewish Migration from Eastern Europe hit American shores 30-40 years later, the newcomers did set up their own Orthodox and chasidic congregations, but especially the Conservative ones quickly gained a following among immigrants eager to acculturate.
In other words, just as the US diaspora is a sui generis success story, so is the blossoming of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the USA a unique success story born out of circumstances and ‘being in the right place at the right time’. But just like the predominant non-Jewish religion in the USA, protestantism, American Judaism is a multidenominational affair, even though the differences between Jewish denominations are more about observance than about points of theology.
There is a flip side to the phenomenon of non-Orthodox denominations. In countries where these were strong, Orthodox communities felt conflicting impulses: ‘go with the flow’ to keep their flock, or rather become more rigid to offer a clear alternative? By and large, the second won out, and typically American Orthodox congregations will expect you to actually be observant at their level to join, or make a good-faith effort to be so. Even in the age of the ba’al teshuva (‘born-again Jews’) movement, the latitudinarian approach of a Moroccan- or Algerian-born Orthodox rabbi (mixing fairly strict ‘official’ doctrine with great personal indulgence) will typically not be theirs. Which is only natural: after all, if people want to live as Reform or Conservative Jews, they have those other places to go to?
Back to Israel now. So we have a bit under half the Jewish population that was either born in, or descended from, Islamic countries with a ‘Catholic’ Jewish community. Most of the recent Russian immigrants had no religious exposure at all (and a purely ethnic/cultural conception of Jewishness). Israel’s “founding fathers” by and large all immigrated from the former Pale of Settlement (spread over present-day Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, …) — places where effectively religious pluralism was not between Reform and Orthodox, but between competing streams of Orthodoxy. The “yekkes” (German Jews) and “anglo” immigrants were the only two major(-ish) groups that came out of a ‘Protestant’ Jewish ambit.
As a result, Jewish religious life in Israel quickly acquired its ‘Catholic’ character: denominationally orthodox, in varied shades of observance. Significantly, an Orthodox Jew is not said to be ortodoksi (a loan word to begin with) but dati (religious) or shomer mitzvot (observing the commandments), with chareidi (lit: “trembling” [in awe of G-d]) reserved for the ultra-Orthodox (“blackhats”). A Jew who mostly keeps the ritual commandments but not all the way will self-identify as masorti (“traditional”): in practice, in an Israeli context (with often still a 1-day weekend), that means somebody who keeps the dietary laws quite strictly (at least at home) but may engage in recreational use of electronics and motor vehicles on the Sabbath. But even somebody who self-identifies as chiloni (secular) may in practice still be more observant of Jewish law than 90% of US Reform Jews: they just may never set foot in a synagogue except for a family event. As an Orthodox wag had it: tell an Israeli secularist to come to an Orthodox synagogue, and he’ll say ‘no!’; tell him to come to the Reform synagogue, to the Russian Orthodox Church, or to a Hare Krishna center, and the answers will be the same: ‘huh?’.
The first Reform congregation (Har-El in Jerusalem) was founded in 1958, and despite massive efforts by the World Union for Progressive Judaism (the Reform federation), Reform has remained a marginal movement in Israel that is (among those who even know it exists) widely regarded as a foreign import. The degree to which the Israeli Reform movement has allowed itself to be politically identified with the far-left Meretz party (which represents mainly the Haaretz readership, enough said) does not exactly help matters. From what I have seen of Reform services in Israeli, they are more traditional than US ones (admittedly a very low standard).
Masorti Judaism (which is what Conservative Judaism calls itself in Israel) has had somewhat greater success attracting “native” Israeli congregants. In part this is due to (deliberate?) semantical confusion with the broader meaning of masorti (see above), but another main factor is its indeed decidedly traditional orientation. By US standards, the Israeli Masorti movement would be ‘conservadox’, and at least one such synagogue which I attended semi-regularly was using the mainline Orthodox prayer book (Siddur Rinat Israel) as recently as 10 years ago, and the corresponding High Holiday prayer books as recently as last year. Masorti Judaism has some following among Israelis who seek a more (gender-)egalitarian experience than is possible in a mainline Orthodox congregation (a few experimental congregations like Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem aside). Still, it has shown no signs of ever becoming anything other than a niche player here.
As an aside, it should be remarked that both the Hebrew Union College (Reform) and Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) maintain satellite campuses in Jerusalem where they expect their rabbinical students to spend at least one year.
Finally, there is a native-grown “secular yeshiva” movement where secular Jews meet in groups that study biblical and rabbinical source texts together. While a parallel can be seen to the havura phenomenon in the USA, it also reminds me of groups at the edge of the established church in some historically Catholic European countries.
So, are Israeli Jews setting up altars and burning candles to saints? Heck no! But are they, sociologically more similar to the observance continuum in Catholic countries than to the denominational quilt of the USA or Canada? Sure, I’d say so.