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October 28, 2018 6:33 pm

We Need to Talk About the Importance of Non-Orthodox Movements

avatar by Evelyn Gordon / JNS.org

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgThe Jewish Federations of North America held their annual General Assembly last week under the title “We Need to Talk” — with “we” meaning Israel and the Diaspora. In that spirit, let’s talk about one crucial difference between the two communities: the role of non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In America, these movements are important to maintaining Jewish identity, something Israelis often fail to understand. But in Israel, they are not — something American Jews frequently fail to understand.

A 2013 Pew Research poll found that by every possible measure of Jewish identity, American Jews who define themselves as being “of no religion” score significantly worse than those who define themselves as Reform or Conservative Jews. For instance, 67 percent of “Jews of no religion” raise their children “not Jewish,” compared to just 10 percent of Reform Jews and seven percent of Conservative Jews. Only 13 percent give their children any formal or informal Jewish education (day school, Hebrew school, summer camp, etc.), compared to 77 percent of Conservative Jews and 48 percent of Reform Jews. The intermarriage rate for “Jews of no religion” is 79 percent, compared to 50 and 27 percent, respectively, among Reform and Conservative Jews.

Indeed, 54 percent of “Jews of no religion” say being Jewish is of little or no importance to them, compared to just 14 percent of Reform Jews and seven percent of Conservative Jews, while 55 percent feel little or no attachment to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Reform Jews and 12 percent of Conservative Jews. And only 10 percent care about being part of a Jewish community, compared to 25 and 40 percent of Reform and Conservative Jews, respectively.

Granted, the non-Orthodox movements haven’t done very well at transmitting Jewish identity to subsequent generations; Orthodoxy is the only one of the three major denominations where the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds isn’t significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50. Nevertheless, these movements do vastly better than “Jews no religion,” which, for most non-Orthodox Jews, is the most likely alternative. Not surprisingly, any Jewish identity is better than none.

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Yet the picture is very different among secular Israeli Jews, the closest Israeli equivalent to “Jews of no religion.” The vast majority marry other Jews, if only because most of the people they know are Jewish. Almost all raise their children Jewish because that’s the norm in their society (fertility rates are also significantly higher). More than 80 percent consider their Jewish identity important. Most obviously care about Israel, since they live there. And because they live there, they belong to the world’s largest Jewish community, whether they want to or not.

Secular Israeli Jews also engage in more Jewish practice than American “Jews of no religion.” For instance, 87 percent attend a Passover seder — more than double the rate among American “Jews of no religion” (42 percent), and even surpassing Reform and Conservative Jews (76 and 80 percent, respectively). A third of secular Israeli Jews keep kosher at home, putting them on a par with Conservative Jews (31 percent) and vastly ahead of both Reform Jews (seven percent) and Jews of no religion (11 percent). And 47 percent fast on Yom Kippur — more than double the rate among American “Jews of no religion” (22 percent), though below both Reform and Conservative Jews (56 and 76 percent, respectively).

In short, by almost any measure of Jewish identity, secular Israeli Jews aren’t equivalent to “Jews of no religion” — they’re roughly on a par with Reform and Conservative Jews. And on some issues, like intermarriage, they even significantly outperform those movements. It turns out that just living in a Jewish state is sufficient to maintain a Jewish identity equal to or greater than those of non-Orthodox American Jews.

Nor is this surprising, because in Israel, maintaining a Jewish identity is much easier. In Israel, you’re surrounded by other Jews; in America, you’re surrounded by non-Jews. In Israel, Shabbat and Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school, and celebrating the holidays doesn’t mean standing out from your friends and neighbors. In America, observing a holiday entails taking a vacation from work, pulling your children out of school, and being different from almost everyone around you. In Israel, all (non-Arab) public schools teach the Bible and other basics of Judaism like holiday traditions. In America, children who don’t attend a Jewish day school or after-school Jewish-studies program may never open a Bible or learn anything about such traditions. In Israel, most supermarkets don’t even stock non-kosher food. In America, keeping kosher requires effort.

But because Israelis don’t need the non-Orthodox movements to maintain a Jewish identity, they often fail to understand why these movements are genuinely important for American Jews. And because American Jews do need those movements, they often fail to understand why many Israelis dismiss them as unimportant.

This mutual misunderstanding goes a long way toward explaining controversies like the one over the Western Wall deal, which would have given non-Orthodox movements equal space and visibility at the site. The non-Orthodox movements believed that this deal would bolster their members’ Jewish identity by making them feel more welcome in Israel in general and at the Wall in particular; thus they were understandably outraged when the government scrapped it. But the deal was irrelevant to secular Israelis’ Jewish identity, so they weren’t upset by the government’s decision to cancel it in exchange for ultra-Orthodox support on issues more important to most Israeli voters.

If Israelis understood the gaping void that the non-Orthodox movements fill in America, they might have realized that the Western Wall deal was genuinely important. And if American Jews understood that no such void exists in Israel, they might have realized that Israelis’ indifference to the deal wasn’t a slap at American Jewry, but merely a reflection of the issue’s irrelevance to Israelis’ Jewish identity, which inevitably made it low priority for them.

This understanding probably wouldn’t resolve many Israel-Diaspora disputes, but it might at least make them less bitter. And that, in itself, would be a step forward.

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.

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