Reform and Conservative leaders are pointing to the findings of a poll — ironcially, commissioned by an Orthodox group — as proof that Israelis are increasingly receptive to the liberal streams of Judaism. The non-Orthodox leaders contend that the responses to six of 16 questions from a recent survey commissioned by the Orthodox Union, a large, mainstream American group, prove that the Conservative and Reform movements have gained significant recognition and support among Israelis in the religious pluralism battle.
One question found that 43.7 percent of respondents prefer or do not oppose non-Orthodox rabbis conducting religious life-cycle services, versus 42.1 percent who prefer Orthodox rabbis.
Another question found that 43 percent of those polled believed that more than one standard is acceptable for converting Jews in Israel, compared with nearly 50 percent who believed that there can be only one standard. And a third found that 29.6 percent of respondents expressed some degree of interest in affiliating with Reform or Conservative congregations, while 64.2 percent were not at all interested.
Non-Orthodox leaders say these figures disprove the OU’s claims that Israelis are neither aware of or interested in Reform and Conservative practices.
Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said the responses offer “the ultimate proof” that “the public overwhelmingly is expectantly awaiting the coming reality of a free market of religious services, with equal status and free access to all three streams.”
Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement’s Masorti organization, said it is “almost a miracle to me” that close to one-third of the respondents expressed some interest in joining a liberal congregation.
Despite requests, the OU has not released the poll results to The Jewish Week or explained why the responses to 10 of the 16 questions have not been made public. Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the OU, stated in a written response to Jewish Week inquiries that the results were released to Maariv, an Israeli daily, on Jan. 30.
“I realize that the Reform and Conservative leadership have put their own spin on the results,” Ganchrow wrote in his statement. “However, I believe that the results speak for themselves.
“Despite much effort and many dollars, the Reform and Conservative movements have been unsuccessful in introducing their practices into Israeli society,” he continued. “Most Israelis view Reform and Conservative Judaism as diaspora movements.”
The OU tried to withdraw one of the findings — that 43 percent of Israelis feel more than one standard regarding conversions is acceptable — from its news release. Ganchrow said the response was “confusing.”
An OU official said the organization does not have a copy of the survey it commissioned. The poll was conducted by the Gallup Institute in Israel, which interviewed 500 Israelis on Jan. 22.
The questioning took place at the height of debate and discussion over the workings of the Neeman Commission, which was appointed to try to resolve the controversy over the lack of recognition of Conservative and Reform conversions in Israel.
At the end of January, the commission called for joint conversion institutes, to be overseen by educators from the three religious streams. That plan was strongly criticized by the chief rabbinate, but government officials say they plan to go ahead with the proposal anyway.
In a Jan. 30 news release headlined “Most Israelis Don’t Know or Want To Join The Reform and Conservative Movements”, the OU highlighted its finding that 86 percent of all Israelis personally know no, or few, Reform and Conservative Jews.
But the Reform and Conservative leaders are so pleased with the OU poll results that several questions and answers have been posted on their web site.
And the non-Orthodox leaders speculate that the New York-based OU’s withholding of the results of 10 poll questions means there might be more unintended favorable results for the non-Orthodox cause, advocating religious pluralism in Israel.
Meanwhile, national polling experts told The Jewish Week that publicly releasing only partial results of a commissioned poll is a practice frowned upon by the industry and raises questions of credibility of the organization that commissioned the poll.
“You don’t pick and choose which questions get released,” once a poll is made public, stated Sheldon Gawizer, president of the National Council on Public Polls. “Our core principle is if you release the poll, you should release the whole poll.”
Lee Maringoff, a pollster for the Marist Institute, concurred. “It cuts into their credibility, he said. And Frank Newport, vice president of the Gallup polling group in the U.S., said that while he was not familiar with the OU poll specifically, in general, “the organization should be willing to release the information.”
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he was surprised by the OU’s actions, adding that he believed the findings were “quite significant.
“It proves that as of now, well over a million Jews [in Israel] would go to a non-Orthodox rabbi for a life-cycle event if it was available.”
Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative institution, said that if the released questions confirm the headway the non-Orthodox movements have made in Israel, “you would like to know what they are holding back.”
The web site of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform group in Jerusalem, posted responses to several of the OU questions and responses, and did a bit of gloating. “A modern day Balaam, the Orthodox Union, set out to curse the Reform and Conservative movements and wound up blessing them instead,” read a statement posted last week, referring to the Biblical non-Jewish prophet. “The Orthodox Union had hoped to prove once and for all that Reform and Conservative Judaism have no place in Israel. The results of the poll, however, indicate the opposite trend.”