Challenges in Israel's Civil Society


Introduction by Rebecca Caspi, Director General, JFNA Israel


Many of the disturbing events that have occurred in Israel lately are linked to trends and issues which have been developing over a long period of time.  This includes challenges within the field of Jewish identity and pluralism as well as those which relate to the rapid growth within the ultra-Orthodox population and the need to develop culturally appropriate opportunities to foster greater integration into mainstream Israeli society. 


As a movement, we have been addressing these developments through the work of our Historic Partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  The background piece below outlines how the Federation movement collectively supports religious streams and other programs that strengthen Israeli society by fostering understanding and integration. 


In addition to all the initiatives described in this document, there is other important work being supported by individual communities. 




To be in contact regarding these topics, please email  



Religion and Israel

The Federation Movement, Religion & Israel

Fact Sheet Developed by JFNA Israel & Overseas Department

February 2012


The JFNA Israel & Overseas Department developed the following factsheet to steer our understanding of how the Federation movement collectively supports religious streams and other programs that strengthen Israeli society by fostering understanding and integration.


How much is Invested?

In 2011, about $ 6million dollars was allocated directly to a number of education, camp, leadership, spiritual, and community programs run by each of three main religious streams in Israel: Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform. About another $4.9 million (of which about $3.4 million represents funding for Masa Israel Journey) enabled the Jewish Agency for Israel to offer diverse Jewish experiences to both Israeli and Diaspora communities, while another $277,500 enabled JDC to help integrate the ultra-Orthodox community into mainstream Israeli society. 


How is the Conservative Movement Supported?

Six different organizations affiliated with the Conservative Movement receive support through the Jewish Agency. Below are descriptions of six out of the 15 total programs:


Masorti Noam Youth Movement and Summer Camp – Noam (acronym for Noa’r Masorti – Masorti Youth) is the Masorti movement’s youth movement in Israel, which works to create an environment that strengthens Jewish and Zionist identities as well as the leadership skills of Israeli youngsters. Its overnight summer camping experience imbues youth with conservative values in a spiritual, fun, summer environment.


Masorti Schlichim (Emissaries) for Pluralism and Congregational Promotion - Emissaries for Pluralism supports the work of rabbis and community activists throughout Israel  in a range of activities including outreach, Jewish identity, religious services, and education. 


Midreshet Yerushalim Judaic Studies Program – This Jewish educational program for Israelis - both veteran and immigrant - strengthens Jewish identity and connects participants to their Jewish heritage by combining academic and experiential components and empowering participants with knowledge drawn from traditional sources. 


Schechter Rabbinical Seminary Pluralistic Spiritual Leadership Program – The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary trains future rabbinical and lay leaders within the Conservative Movement to lead congregations and other communal institutions.


The Tali Education Fund – The Schechter Institute’s TALI (acronym for “enhanced Jewish studies”) school network is comprised of 190 Israeli state schools serving 40,000 students. These TALI schools are provided with teacher training, curriculum guidance, text books, informal education tools, and other services needed to enable an Israeli secular, public school to absorb the TALI method.  

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Yeshiva in Jerusalem – A Yeshiva program[1] offered during the summer as well as the academic-year for Jews around the world, it  fosters stronger ties with Israel by exposing all students to Israeli society and culture and providing meaningful opportunities for engagement through social action, gemilut hesed (bestowing kindness) activities, and meetings with Israelis.   


How is the Orthodox Movement Supported?

Four Orthodox organizations are supported by the Federation movement - through the Jewish Agency - enabling fifteen different programs to shape the community including:


Council of Young Israel Rabbis Agunot and Get-Refusal Coordinator – The coordinator helps resolve cases of Get-refusal in Israel and across the Jewish world by developing and disseminating preventative measures as well as by strengthening marital bonds.


Note that the term Get refers to the formal divorce process according to Jewish law, while Agunot is a Hebrew term describing women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Get thus trapping them in an unwanted marriage.


Council of Young Israel Rabbis Judaic Studies Program for the Deaf – Empowers the hearing impaired population to study Jewish traditions and connect to their heritage through tailored classes, seminars, trips, theatre performances, and leadership training programs.


 OU/NCSY Israel Center De'oraita – De’oraita reaches out to at risk teens and provides them with snooker clubs wherein they find a “home away from home,” – a nurturing environment where they develop their self-confidence, express themselves, and gain pride in their Jewish identity.


OU/NCSY Israel Center NCSY In Israel – This center helps disadvantaged youngsters gain a sense of self-worth and inspires them to live an optimistic, traditional and responsible Jewish life through an expanding network of youth clubs.


Israel Council of International Young Israel Jerusalem Crossroads Employment Center –  The  Employment Center provides disenfranchised and at-risk English speaking youth and young adults with comprehensive employment services needed to integrate into the workforce.


Israel Council of International Young Israel Zionism and Aliyah for Singles – Provides singles, particularly new immigrants between the ages of 23 and 39, with the social framework needed to meet others; thereby creating a forum in which communities, friendships, and marriages can evolve.


How is the Reform Movement Supported?

Three Reform organizations running 15 programs are supported by the Federation movement - through the Jewish Agency - including:  


Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)  Jewish Education Program – This education program nurtures a new generation of children and youth in Israel together with peers overseas through formal and informal pluralistic education programs in schools and preschools officially affiliated with IMPJ.


Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ)  Jewish Communal Development Program – This program aims to promote Jewish identity through a model of multi-disciplinary community centers by increasing Israelis’ exposure to Jewish communal engagement, building a framework for growth, strengthening the pluralistic Jewish identity of new immigrants, promoting social activism in Israeli society, and enriching the Jewish identity of young families.


World Union for Progressive Judaism Beit Shmuel Education Center – Beit Shmuel, a Jewish educational and cultural center, provides residents of Jerusalem and Israel with programs that present contemporary, pluralistic, and egalitarian approaches to Judaism.


World Union for Progressive Judaism Shnat Netzer – Shant Netzer[2] is a leadership training program for young adults in Israel who are graduates of the Netzer Olami youth movement. The program instills participants with the skills and knowledge necessary to become leaders in their movement, community and university.


Hebrew Union College Israeli Rabbinic Program – This program encourages and creates the leadership capable of promoting a pluralistic society in Israel. Graduates are expected to establish new congregations, enhance existing communities, and hold key positions in educational and social institutions. 


Hebrew Union College Year in Israel Program[3]As part of their requirement of the HUC-JIR program, rabbinic, cantorial, and education students spend one year in Israel studying Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, modern Jewish thought, professional skills, as well as Jewish religious music. The goal is to acquaint students with the knowledge-base needed to continue their studies.


How do Federations Encourage the Integration of Ultra-Orthodox Communities into Israel?

Both the Jewish Agency and JDC offer programs that provide the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel with the tools needed to better integrate into mainstream society.   


JDC’s Ultra-Orthodox Job Opportunity Centers (Mafteach) – Mafteach provides a local address for employment in eight major Ultra-Orthodox communities where clients can: receive career coaching; draft a professional resume; learn how to interview for a job; gain job readiness skills; receive job placement assistance; and learn about vocational training options and other opportunities for developing career. Separate hours and separate gender staffing are provided, and job search resources (filtered internet and periodicals) are appropriate for ultra-Orthodox. These centers also refer clients to TEVET's other employment programs for ultra-Orthodox and provide assistance to those needing extra support. Ultra-Orthodox Job Opportunity Centers are assisting 3,000 ultra-Orthodox annually.

JDC’s Career Alternatives Program Provides career training in gainful fields in ultra-Orthodox women's seminaries that have traditionally only provided teacher's education. Trainings currently emphasize hi-tech (software quality assurance and programming) as well as interior design, financial analysis, and para-engineering. Career Alternatives ensures job placement, often placing graduates in group employment schemes so that large numbers of classmates can work together as a team in the same office or company, easing their transition into mainstream Israeli companies.  JDC is working with 12 top seminaries in Israel.


JDC’s Shachar Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Employment Program – Army service has long provided employment training as well as a salary to young married men. Yet, it has been off limits to most ultra-Orthodox because life in the army is seen as a secularizing influence. With the army, JDC has created a service track where ultra-Orthodox men can learn a vocation for employment in a culturally-sensitive environment. To date, 1,800 ultra-Orthodox men have been recruited into the army through Shachar and over 280 graduates are now employed gainfully in the private and public sector or as career soldiers in the IDF. An anticipated 600-800 new ultra-Orthodox recruits will join the Shachar IDF program this year.


JDC’s Literacy Skills in Ultra-Orthodox Preschools and Kindergartens (Ages 3-6) Program Intense emphasis on early reading skills for boys in the ultra-Orthodox educational system/Heder education is challenged by the lack of development of oral skills. This is leading to serious academic problems for weaker boys and manifests itself in higher than average dropout rates in later grades.  Another main challenge is the multi-lingual environment: an ultra-Orthodox child often lacks strength in a primary language where Yiddish, modern Hebrew and Lashon Hakodesh (Ancient/Classical Hebrew) are all languages in his environment. In partnering with ultra-Orthodox schools, JDC successfully trained over 20 teachers of 3-4 year old ultra-Orthodox students in 20 preschools located in Bnei Brak and Beitar during the program's first year. In year two, a second group for teachers for 4-5 year olds was added, while continuing to work with teachers in the 3-4 age group. To date, 40 teachers have received training and the program is impacting some 1,200 children ages 3 to 5. 


JDC’s Developing Tools for Effective Education in the Ultra-Orthodox Community Program – To improve the abilities of ultra-Orthodox educators and senior educational professionals, including psychologists and guidance counselors, JDC has established a three-pronged approach that introduce skills to address the issues of children and youth at risk in ultra-Orthodox schools:

·   Professional training over the course of three years, for senior ultra-Orthodox psycho-educational professionals (140 graduates to date)

·   Development of certificate and degree courses for teachers focused on addressing the needs of at-risk ultra-Orthodox students (100 students in 3 seminaries are in the process of getting their certificates)

·   In-school work with educational professionals in  elementary and high schools in developing and implementing alternative options for addressing the needs of at-risk ultra-Orthodox students (10 participating schools)   


The Jewish Agency Youth Futures Program for Ultra-Orthodox – The Jewish Agency's Youth Futures program empowers disadvantaged Israeli youth, providing them with an equal opportunity to develop their academic and social skills. Youth Futures is operated in partnership with overseas Jewish Federations and Keren Hayesod/UIA communities, with Israeli philanthropists, and with the Government of Israel. The innovative Youth Futures model is based on "Trustees" - some 300 young adult Israeli social pioneers - who work full time to build a strong relationship with children and their parents. The Trustees tailor an annual work plan for each child, based on his/her strengths and needs. The work plan is developed in coordination with parents, teachers, school counselors, social workers, and other professionals. Youth futures is active in Tzfat and is now being established in Bnei Barak – both cities have high concentrations of ultra-Orthodox.

The Jewish Agency Partnership2gether Program in Mateh Yehuda-Beit Shemesh Thanks to the support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish communities of South Africa, outreach efforts are made to include members of the ultra-Orthodox community in a variety of programs in Beit Shemesh, including business development courses and mentorship for women seeking to create small businesses and community leadership. In 2009, the partnership commissioned a survey to determine if there was an interest among ultra-Orthodox in employment and vocational training, which led to the implementation of the national JDC Mafteach program in Beit Shemesh. The Partnership is also about to fund grassroots initiatives that create dialogue and promote tolerance between different communities within the city of Beit Shemesh.

Israel Experience Programs

In addition to some of the programs for Diaspora Jewry run by the three main religious streams in Israel, the MASA Israel Journey, a partnership between the Government of Israel and the Jewish Agency, serves as a platform for a number of different long-term programs for international Jewry. These programs include Judaic studies programs that are connected to all three religious streams in Israel including some of these movement's Israel experience programs listed above. Other examples include: Tikkun Olam, a study and volunteer program in Tel Aviv-Jaffa in which participants examine Jewish texts and philosophy in an open and pluralistic manner, and Yehishivat HaKotel, which offers a vast range of programs, including multi-level Talmud classes, Jewish law, philosophy and Bible studies. 


Special Assistance for IDF Soldiers

The Nativ program, a partnership between the Jewish Agency, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israel Ministry of Absorption, provides young immigrants serving in the IDF, more than half of whom come from countries where Jewish and Israel education is very limited, with a comprehensive educational program that reinforces their connection to Israel and their Jewish cultural heritage. As part of the program, participants of Nativ who are not halachially Jewish and are interested in undergoing conversion to Judaism are offered professional guidance, support and assistance during the conversion process.


Role of Jewish Agency in Promoting Pluralism and Jewish Unity

Through its Board of Governors – a unique governing body representing all religious steams of Judaism and the entire Zionist political spectrum – the Jewish Agency has always provided an inclusive forum for dialogue on issues critical to the future of the Jewish people. Empowered under Israeli law to be an official representative of world Jewry and directed by its Committee on the Unity of the Jewish People on which Orthodox, Conservative and Reform clergy and lay people sit together under the leadership of Chairman of the Executive, Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned to advocate with the Israeli government on the Law of Return and other matters of Jewish status.

The importance and relevance of this advocacy was demonstrated recently when Mr. Sharansky was called upon to chair the Task Force on Conversion to try to defuse tensions and find ways of bridging the differences regarding conversions of the various religious streams and how they are viewed by the Israeli Government; and again to bridge differences regarding Orthodox conversions carried out in North America and the Israeli Rabbinate as they relate to the Law of Return. While the discussions of the Task Force continue, Mr. Sharanksy did reach an agreement with the Israeli Minister of the Interior, recognizing that for purposes of the Law of Return, the Jewish Agency has the exclusive right to determine if the conversion outside of Israel (regardless of religious stream) was carried out by a recognized community and Rabbi.





[1] The Conservative Yeshiva is a MASA Israel Journey-supported program  

[2] Shnat Netzer is a MASA Israel Journey-supported program  

[3] The Hebrew Union College Year in Israel Program is a MASA Israel Journey-supported program  

Resources and Links


A Jewish State: The Challenge of Haredim

01.30.2012, by Donniel Hartman more

An Apology to Non-Haredi Readers

02.03.12, by Jonathan Rosenblum


Study: Haredi Middle Class Emerging

02.09.12, by Jeremy Sharon


The remarkable good news about the haredim

02.10.12, by Haviv Gur


Bank of Israel reports 7% more Haredi men working than two years ago

03.07.12, by Hila Weisberg 


Who is ‘haredi’

05.03.12, by Haim Amsalem


JDC-Meyers-Brookdale's 2012 report on Arab-Israeli Facts and Figures

Updated demographic, social, and economic data on Israel's Arab population.


Women in Israel: A Guide to Current Challenges and Partner Responses

Developed by JFNA Israel & Overseas Department, February 2012



Jewish Identity

Religion and Israel

Protecting Tolerance in Israel

JFNA's page on religious activity and acceptance in Israel more