It took a stint in the American heartland for a kibbutznik like Nir Barkin to discover that there’s more than one way of practicing Judaism. It was during his four-year tenure as Jewish Agency envoy in Milwaukee that Barkin (pictured, at a bat mitzvah ceremony in Modi’in), until then a self-proclaimed secular Jew, first set foot into a non-Orthodox synagogue. So blown away was he by the experience that upon returning to Israel in 2004, he enrolled in Jerusalem’s Hebrew Union College to study to become a Reform rabbi.

Today, the 47-year-old father of three is the rabbi of YOZMA, the Reform congregation of Modi’in, one of the fastest growing cities in Israel. Aside from a synagogue that serves 700 families, YOZMA operates a network of preschools, a Beit Midrash for adult learning and its own state-funded elementary school. The overwhelming majority of his congregants – more than 90 percent, as Barkin likes to point out – are native-born sabras like himself.

It’s not only the Reform movement that enjoys a healthy following in Israel’s youngest city, situated roughly halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Modi’in is also home to two congregations affiliated with the Conservative, or Masorati, movement, as it’s known in Israel. Like most such congregations, Yedid Nefesh, the younger of the two, doesn’t have its own rabbi but is run by a volunteer gabbai. In this case, the congregation’s lay leader is high-tech entrepreneur Amit Dar who, like Barkin, found his way to progressive Judaism rather late in life and by a fairly roundabout route.

“I grew up in a home with a father who was anti-religious and a mother who was somewhat traditional,” he recalls. “The person who connected me to religion was my grandfather, who prepared me for my bar mitzvah. But I didn’t want to be Orthodox because I don’t like sitting apart from my wife in the synagogue, and I don’t like this whole business of sending the kids as messengers back and forth between the parents. So here I am.”

It’s not mere coincidence that Modi’in has emerged in recent years as the unofficial capital of pluralistic Judaism in Israel. “We’re a new city with a relatively young demographic, and the people who moved here were looking for a sense of community,” Dar notes. “In many ways, these congregations fulfill that need.”

At his own Conservative synagogue, which only recently moved into a permanent structure and currently serves a core community of 35 families, attendance has been growing slowly but steadily over time. “We’re certainly not seeing a boom, but in the past 10 or 15 years since we got started, every year there’s a little bit more,” he reports.

The numbers tell the story

The Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem has been following shifting trends in religious affiliation in Israel for more than 20 years now, and its findings would seem to bear out what is happening on the ground in Modi’in – that a small but growing percentage of native-born Israelis, overwhelmingly from secular backgrounds, are embracing either Conservative or Reform Judaism. Its most recent survey, published in June of this year, found that 3.2 percent of Israelis see themselves as affiliated with the Conservative movement, and 3.9 percent with the Reform movement (more than 7 percent combined). A more comprehensive study undertaken in 2009 found only slight differences, with 3.8 percent identifying with each of the two movements (researchers at IDI do not attach significance to the disparities between the two polls). Looking back over a longer period, however, a clear trend is evident: In 1999, the same survey found only 2 percent of Israelis identifying as Conservative and 3 percent as Reform (5 percent combined), and in 1993, only 1.6 percent identified as Conservative and 2 percent as Reform (3.6 percent combined).

To be sure, it’s not a craze sweeping the masses, but rather, a very gradual shift, reflecting a new interest among secular Israelis in their Jewish identity and a rejection of the country’s once pervasive all-or-nothing approach to Judaism.

It’s a shift evident not only in the percentages of Israelis identifying as Conservative and Reform, but also in the number of Conservative and Reform congregations sprouting up around the country. The number of Conservative congregations in Israel has grown from 40 at the start of the millennium to close to 70 today; the Reform movement is catching up quickly, with 43 congregations today, compared with only 12 in 1990.

“Our goal is to create two or three new congregations every year and eventually cover all of Israel with non-Orthodox congregations,” says Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, who notes that the number of bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies conducted by his movement has doubled in the past 10 years and that the number of weddings officiated by its rabbis has multiplied tenfold, from 100 in 1990 to 1,000 last year. This dramatic increase is even more surprising considering that the state does not recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and that couples married by these rabbis who nonetheless want to have their status legalized in Israel must follow up their weddings with civil ceremonies performed out of the country.

Some of the more established Conservative and Reform congregations have their own synagogues, but most do not, so they hold their services wherever space is available. That may mean the local community center, an old-age home or the neighborhood Pilates studio.

But while synagogue attendance and membership may be the key indicators of affiliation in the United States and elsewhere, this is not the case in Israel. In fact, the vast majority of those who identify as Conservative or Reform Jews do not attend Conservative or Reform synagogues, and certainly not on a regular basis. Neither are they dues-paying members of the movements. Their affiliation, as the evidence suggests, takes different forms.

“Synagogue membership – that’s a concept from our days in exile,” remarks Meir Azari, who has served as the head rabbi of Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s Reform congregation, since its establishment in 1991. “Ours is based on a new type of model, with very little of our work taking place inside the synagogue.”

In some cases, affiliation means that on the one day a year these Israelis do attend synagogue, typically Yom Kippur, it is the local Conservative or Reform synagogue where they head. Often, that’s because they happened to have attended a bar- or bat-mitzvah there a few months earlier and liked what they saw. “Anglos seek us out, while Israelis stumble upon us,” notes Jeff Cymet, the rabbi of New Kehila, in Ramat Aviv.

Increasingly, secular Israelis are also turning to these non-Orthodox synagogues for their life cycle events. “It’s almost uncanny, but we’re booked now with bar- and bat-mitzvahs through 2015, and we hold about three or four each Shabbat,” reports Azari, noting, as do many of his peers, that once families hold their first bar- or bat-mitzvah under the auspices of these movements and have a positive experience, they are likely to come back for more.

So who are some of these Israelis who call themselves Conservative and Reform but hardly fit the accepted definitions abroad? Azari likes to cite the example of prominent Israeli industrialist Dov Lautman, who passed away in November, and his offspring. “We officiated at his funeral,” notes Azari. “Two weeks before that, one of his grandsons had a bar mitzvah here and another of his grandsons attends our preschool. They’re not officially members of our congregation, but that doesn’t matter anymore.”

Many Israelis are getting their first exposure to the progressive movements through the educational programs they run, spanning the gamut of preschools, joint parent-children bar- and bat-mitzvah classes and Beit Midrash-style Jewish studies classes for adults. Among the trailblazers was the TALI network, loosely affiliated with the Conservative movement through its Schechter Institutes, which today provides pluralistic Jewish studies programs in 200 public schools and preschools around the country.

On a tour of the Beit Daniel premises, Azari guides a visitor to the children’s play center located in the basement. “People join our parents’ club and then have access to these facilities,” he notes. “These are people who would never pay to be members of a synagogue but have no problem whatsoever forking out money to join a parents’ club.”

Pointing to a group of toddlers amusing themselves on the floor mats, he makes the following prediction: “See these kids here. I guarantee you they’ll be doing their bar mitzvahs with us.”

Losing the Anglo-Saxon stigma

A native-born Israeli of Sephardi extraction, Azari is typical of the new breed of spiritual leaders who have come to dominate the local Conservative and Reform movements and help eliminate the Anglo-Saxon stigma that clung to them for years and put off many Israelis. “It’s not just that we speak Hebrew,” he notes, “we speak Israeli.”

This new generation of clergy includes people like Dubi Haiyun, the rabbi of the almost 60-year-old Conservative congregation in Haifa, who uses the term “Israelization” to describe what’s happening on the ground. “Our congregation was once primarily Anglo-Saxon,” he notes. “Today, we’re about half native-born Israelis, many of them Sephardim like myself.”

They include others like Galit Kedem-Cohen, the rabbi of the Reform movement’s brand new congregation in Holon (a city close to Tel Aviv that recently also got its first Conservative congregation), who jokes that people aren’t as appalled as they once were when she mentions her profession. “Three years ago, when I told them I was a Reform rabbi, that was considered the weirdest thing in the world,” says the mother of two. “Today it’s still weird but not the weirdest thing in the world.”

Among those key factors that have helped the movements expand their reach have been partnerships with non-religious public schools. It is no longer odd, for example, for large groups of second-graders along with their parents – many of whom rarely, if ever, attend synagogue services – to show up at the local Conservative or Reform synagogue to receive their first Chumash, as the Five Books of Moses are known, in a ceremony that has long been a rite of passage in the Israeli school system. Nor is it considered unusual for completely secular sixth-graders and their families to attend a collective bat-mitzvah ceremony at the local Conservative or Reform synagogue.

Very often, it is the rabbis of these congregations who are invited to the local schools to talk about upcoming holidays and other matters of religious significance – a job once reserved for their Orthodox peers.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d need to get permission to set foot in these schools, and I’d have to fight for it,” recalls Haiyun. “Not anymore. We’ve become legitimate now, and that, to my mind, is nothing short of a revolution.”

Mauricio Balter, the Argentinean-born rabbi of the Conservative congregation in Be’er Sheva, was once, many years ago, instructed to leave the premises of a local school and told it was “not proper” for him to be there. “All that has changed,” he says. “Together with the municipality here, we run a Jewish education program in one of the local schools, and a second school recently approached us with a request that we bring a similar program to them. My biggest problem today is I don’t have staff to accommodate all the demand.”

Among the books lying on Azari’s office desk is one hot off the presses. It’s a new curriculum program for bar- and bat-mitzvah age boys and girls prepared by the Reform movement in Israel in conjunction with the Tel Aviv municipality and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s about to be introduced in 15 schools in Tel Aviv,” he notes proudly.

Seeking Jewish renewal

Like many of his cohorts, Azari believes the turning point for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel was the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox Jew. “Until then, secular Israelis were willing to have their religious services performed by Orthodox rabbis,” he recounts. “But ever since then, I get lots of people who walk in here saying they will never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue again.”

Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative movement in Israel, points to other factors he believes have played a role, including the growing tendency of Israelis to spend extended periods of time abroad where they get exposed to other streams of Judaism. “The fact is that every year now, more than 1,000 Israelis are stationed abroad as envoys, and what they learn is that different levels of commitment to Judaism are possible,” says Hess, a 10th-generation Israeli. “It then becomes less threatening to them.”

A loss of tolerance among Israelis for gender discrimination, in his view, may also explain the growing preference for more egalitarian forms of prayer. “For modern Jews these days, walking into an environment where women are pushed to the back, as they are in Orthodox synagogues, makes much less sense now.”

Yair Sheleg, a research associate at the IDI, says the rise of the Conservative and Reforms movements in Israeli needs to be seen within the broader context of Jewish renewal – a term used to describe the many grassroots, non-denominational initiatives of the past two decades that have attracted secular Israelis seeking both spirituality and knowledge. These include the so-called “secular yeshivas” where Jewish texts are studied as well as alternative non-denominational religious ceremonies outside the realms of the synagogue. “It has to do with the collapse of many of the Socialist values that molded the Zionist vision in the early decades of the state,” notes Sheleg. “People began looking for a different anchor, which Judaism was able to provide. The Reform movement was seen as closer to secularism than Orthodoxy, so this was a natural development.”

Clare Goldwater, an educational consultant and former senior executive at Hillel, the worldwide Jewish students’ organization, has been observing the phenomenon for years, both in Israel and abroad. “As Israelis become increasingly exposed to alternative forms of Judaism,” she says, “Reform and Conservative Judaism are also becoming options for them.” The fact that these movements have become more “indigenous,” as she describes it, makes them more attractive to Israelis. “No longer does everyone involved speak with an American accent,” she says.

It helps, adds Prof. Chaim Waxman, a senior fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, that Israelis are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Orthodox establishment, as represented by the Rabbinate. “Many are finding a more meaningful atmosphere with the Reform and Conservative movements,” says the expert on sociology of religion, an Orthodox Jew himself.

But the real question, according to the IDI’s Sheleg, is not why a growing percentage of Israelis identify today with the non-Orthodox movements but considering all this, why even more aren’t doing the same. “I believe the reason is that they’re still seen as alien and something American; they still have rabbis, which make Israelis suspicious; and they’re run by big organization, which is another thing they don’t like.”

By Judy Maltz (