What Does Israeli Jewish Society Look like? A Brief Market Overview.
July 20, 2021

Perhaps even more so than other areas in Jewish life, Israeli Judaism and the boundaries of Israeli Jewish communities are particularly resistant to easy categorization.  

Big picture – the Israeli Jewish population (6.5 million) can be broken down into four communal buckets: Hiloni, Masorati, Dati, and Haredi.  

Of course, each of these discrete communities has its own micro-communities, to say nothing of the larger cultural divisions of Ashkenazi and Sephardi.  We would be well served to remind ourselves of the fluidity that exists between categories even as we acknowledge the usefulness of these generalizations.  

The self-identified breakdown of the Israeli Jewish population is*:

57% Hiloni (Totally and Somewhat Secular)

19% Masorati (Traditional) 

13% Dati (Religious)

10% Haredi (Ultra-Religious) 

Often labels like Hiloni (secular?!?) tell you less about what the community is committed to and probably more about what they want to distance themselves from.  

But it’s worth spending some time unpacking this category that represents over half the Israeli Jewish population and is fundamentally misunderstood by Americans.

For example, only a small minority of Israelis who self-identify as Reform or Conservative Jews (probably all told 10%) identify as Dati (religious.)  Said another way, the majority of Jews who identify with the Reform and Conservative religious movements in Israel make their home within the term Hiloni – which is usually translated as “secular.”  

The category Hiloni (as with the category Dati) should be understood as a big tent that holds much variation, often with fluid boundaries.  In this example, this nomenclature basically means – not supportive the coercive religious power of the State. 

Hiloni in the Israeli context is not best understood as a movement that rejects religion.  While there is a minority of hiloni Israelis who are antagonistic to Judaism, most of those who self-identify as hiloni do not reject Judaism.  Indeed, most hiloni Israelis say they believe in God.  

For more texture, sixteen percent of the people who identified as totally hiloni and fifty-four percent of the people who identify as somewhat hiloni make kiddush on Friday night.   

To say the obvious, this is not simply having a family dinner on Friday night; we are talking about a lot of Jews who find it important to recite traditional Jewish liturgy at their dinner.  By comparison, ten percent of American Jews who identify as Reform light candles on Friday night. 

So, there are a greater number of totally hiloni Israelis making kiddush of Friday night in Israel than there are Reform Jews lighting candles in America.

 Twenty-two percent of totally hiloni Israelis (fifty-eight percent of somewhat hiloni) read the whole Haggadah on Passover.  

Twelve percent of totally hiloni Israelis eat only kosher in their home.  That number skyrockets to fifty-nine percent for somewhat hiloni Israelis.

At the very least, these numbers complicate a one-dimensional understanding of “secular” identity and should highlight for us the enormous opportunities to engage hiloni Israelis in community centered Judaism.

To be sure, within each of these four communal sectors, exciting, new and inspiring work is occurring.  All of these sectors are contributing to the project of the renaissance of Judaism and Jewish communities within Israeli society.  

Market Opportunities:

We have emphasized how Israeli and American Jewish communities are facing similar challenges.  However, Israeli and American communities are also moving in opposite directions.

In America, the center of the Jewish community is significantly contracting.

That is to say, the wide breadth of Jews who three decades ago had participated in some form of institutionalized Jewish life (a federation, a synagogue or some other communal organization) is dramatically declining.  

Conversely, in Israeli society the religious and cultural center is a growth market!  The larger demographic flows and ideological trends indicate the expansion of the center of Jewish life!  

From the Left: The Softening of Lefty Orthodoxies

“A man becomes a Zionist when he can’t be a Jew anymore…Zionism is an act of destruction, a negation of what has come before.”  

For (too) many years, these words said by Yudka the protagonist in Haim Hazaz’s short story The Sermon (1943) described well a popular understanding of the project of Zionism.  

Zionism, understood in these terms, is a rejection of Jewish history, a history that is equated with victimhood and powerlessness.  Judaism itself is identified as the ideology that generated this lack of agency and passivity that inextricably ended up in victimhood.  

If one wanted to turn a new page in Jewish history, moving past the persecutions and pain of the Jewish people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a new Jew would have to be birthed.  For that to happen, Judaism would have to be negated.

This orthodoxy had a huge impact on Israeli society for many decades.  

But today this ideology has much less pull on young Israelis.  

While young Israelis may have negative attitudes to religious coercion, they don’t have venom against religion itself.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.  

A remarkable ninety-one percent of Israelis express commitments ranging from an absolute belief in God’s existence (fifty-eight percent) to sometimes thinking God may exist. 

Israelis — particularly those who do not have a strong knowledge of Judaism — are trying to figure out a new way of being in conversation with the Jewish past, as they try to forge a new Jewish future for themselves and the State.

One can’t stress enough the enormous hurdles Israelis have to jump over to get to this place where they are now taking ownership of Judaism and Jewish identity on their own terms.  Not only do they have to transcend this rigid secular Zionist orthodoxy, but they also have to negotiate the coercive and often monolithic religious presentations of Judaism authorized by the State. 

Moved by the existential challenges of the moment, they are searching within Judaism for authentic and meaningful responses to life’s great questions.  India and East Asia still remain popular paths to pursue spiritual urges, but more and more young Israelis are also looking inward, exploring their own wisdom traditions.

Israelis, like so many of us in America, are searching for a “story” that’s bigger than our own lives, for a sense of authenticity in a world of superficiality, and for real community in order to share life’s joys and difficulties.

Like an iceberg breaking off and falling into the sea, the orthodoxies of the left are giving way and more and more Israelis are entering open minded into the great center of Israeli Jewish society.

The question remains:  Who will greet them on their journey and what Jewish communities will exist for them to find a home?

From the Right: The Attrition of Righty Orthodoxies

The demographic flow from the left into the center is being met from an inflow from the right.

Around half of all Israelis who grew up in National-Religious homes no longer identify as Dati (religious:  think the Israeli TV show Srugim 😊).  A minority (16%) have moved religiously to the right but the majority of these Jews now make their home in the secular and traditional sectors of Israeli society.  

Let’s be clear, while these people no longer desire the rhythms and commitments of the Dati community, they by no means have rejected Judaism.  On the contrary, they have a deep desire for Judaism to be a part of their and their family’s lives.  

The numbers of people reflecting this phenomenon are not insignificant. 

In fact, there are so many people who have gone through this experience that the Hebrew language has a word for them -– datlash (an acronym for – dati le’she’avar) – or formerly religious.

Poriya Gal Gatz who became a datlashit (the feminine form of datlash) more than twenty years ago wrote a book about this new cultural identity called Hadatlashim (2011).    She begins with the prescient observation that the existence of such a word in Hebrew reflects a significant cultural need within Israeli society.  She asks “why do we insist on calling ourselves this, in a label that preserves the past within the present, rather than simply becoming hilonim, even ten or twenty years afterward?”

The term datlash is employed because often leaving the religious camp is less of a total break and more of a morphing into a new, complex cultural space that continues to be very much in relationship with Judaism.  The term datlash conveys a desire within Israeli society to build a new Jewish identity – on new terms and in new ways – and not to tear down a relationship to Judaism. 

As one might expect, the level of education these formerly Dati people bring into the non-Dati community is also substantial.  These formerly Dati individuals, many of whom are conversant with Jewish texts and possess deep learning, represent a real boon to the potential thickness of this new cultural and religious space.  

Given the societal flows from both the “left” and the “right” into the “center” there is significant potential for Jewish community building within this growing sector of Israeli society.  

The fundamental question before us is:  Can Israeli rabbis and spiritual entrepreneurs leverage this dynamic and create Jewishly inspiring communities that respond to the needs of this growing Israeli market? 

Postscript: Israeli Judaism and the iPhone, The Holy Feedback Loop

In 2008, the majority of the world had yet to realize that they wanted an iPhone.  Only when they saw what it could do and how it might help better organize their lives did the market explode.  Moreover, the launch of the iPhone didn’t just expand the market for a single product, it created an ecosystem for more innovation.

A parallel phenomenon is emerging in Israeli Jewish life today.  The greater the number of diverse and inspiring Jewish communities that are established on the ground, the more opportunities Israelis will have to see and experience real, connected Jewish living.  

And as the current demand for inspired Jewish living and community is met, these successes will generate more demand for Jewish community, catalyzing even more spiritual innovation.  

Rabbis functioning as spiritual entrepreneurs, are not simply fulfilling a need for an existing market.  These leaders – through their work creating inspired opportunities for connected Jewish living – are generating new markets.  

The overarching role of these rabbinic spiritual entrepreneurs working in Israel today is to persuade the entire society to take a new leap, to adopt new approaches to Jewish living and community building.  Rabbinic entrepreneurs build one community at a time.  Their success generates more success.  By means of the ecosystems of diverse Israeli Jewish communities, rabbinic entrepreneurs hope to transform the entire system thereby bringing about meaningful social change.

*Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs, #Israeli Judaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, JPPI, 2019.