Mah Ani, Reformi? How Dati (and Formerly Dati) Israelis View Reform and Conservative Judaism

Most dati Jews in Israel have never met a Reform or Conservative Jew, at least not consciously, and certainly do not have much of a clue about those denominations. As a result, the word “Reformi” has taken on an interesting meaning in these circles.

Two examples: A few weeks ago, as I picked up my son and niece from nursery school on Friday, the teacher gave me a package for him. Without noting what was in the package, I mentioned that I was taking my niece as well and needed to take her package, too. The teacher looked at me and said “anachnu lo Reformim”—we’re not Reform. In the package, it turns out, was a Kiddush cup, a small gift for the boys in the class. The girls got candlesticks, which were not as fragile and had already been placed in the girls’ backpacks. Being who I am, I pointed out that according to the Shulchan Arukh, hardly a Reform work, a woman can make Kiddush for a man, but that was entirely beside the point.
The second example was at a shull membership meeting a few years ago. The issue being discussed was minors leading Kabbalat Shabbat. This is done all over Israel, though rarely if ever in the States. There was a debate between the Israelis and the Anglos about whether it would be done in this shul (of which I’m no longer a member). During the discussion, I asked whether young girls could also lead. Why not, right? A board member looks at me and says, “Mah anachnu, Reformim?
It’s clear, then, that Israelis really don’t have much of a clue what Reform is, or what differentiates it from Conservative Judaism. It’s kind of the catch-all term for “what we sense is untraditional.” I get the sense that this sentiment is not exclusive to religiously observant Israelis, hence the “shul I don’t daven in is Orthodox” phenomenon, but my experience is mostly restricted to the former.
More thought provoking is this blog post by Tomer Persico. Persico is a scholar of comparative religion whose insights into contemporary religion are often quite fascinating and always well written. It’s worth reading his entire description of Uman on Rosh Hashana. Persico himself is what would be called “datlash”- dati le-she’avar. He still doesn’t fit neatly into any religious category, but he’s no longer traditionally observant. He makes the following comments about Reform and Conservative Judaism. I still think it’s a very Israeli way of looking at the issue (especially by not distinguishing Conservative and Reform), but it’s certainly stimulating, and many of the people joining independent minyanim might agree:
I suddenly understood what’s so lacking with Reform and Conservative Jews (among other things that are missing, foremost being an emphasis on the direct encounter with the Divine): streams. Where is their Chabad? Where’s their Har Ha-Mor? Where’s their Ne’emanei Torah Ve-avoda? Where are their Litvaks? In other words, maybe they all exist here and there as individuals, but they have not become broader frameworks in which ideas and behaviors grow to maturity and are digested. From a bird’s-eye view, everything is too homogeneous, and thus a bit listless, devoid of passion. There is certainly no craziness. Diversity of streams ensures cross-fertilization and mutual development; it ensures infighting and evolution; it ensures feelings of mutual responsibility and kinship. In Uman, for example, you really see that something is happening in Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy, of course, has halakha to keep all of the streams in the same boat. It was precisely against the backdrop of halakha that Reform and Conservative (and the like) split, and thus that is precisely what cannot unite them. So they are friendly, but not organically bound to each other. This is the difference between friendship and kin: with kin, blood links individuals even if they hate each other. Friends who hate each other part company. Within a family, hatred and adversity can occasionally generate mutual development and movement (from the straits I called God). In friendship, adversity generates schism and individual development. Of course, friendship has advantages over kinship; nevertheless, in Uman the familial warmth and fraternity is palpable. If only the family was a bit more normal.

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