Chapter 3 – Patterns of Jewish Engagement

The diversity of Greater Pittsburgh Jewry is reflected not only by the varied demographics of the residents, but in the many types of Jewish identification and means of engagement in Jewish life. Examining the ways in which Pittsburgh-area Jews not only view, but also enact their Jewish identities, is necessary to understand this population and the ways in which Jewish life in the region can be enhanced.

Background: Classifications of Jewish identity

As discussed in Chapter 2, many Jewish demographic studies, including most recently Pew (2013), classify Jewish adults as either “Jewish by religion” (JBR; they respond that they are “Jewish” when asked about their religious identity) or “Jews of no religion” (JNR; they consider themselves to be Jewish in a way other than religion). For purposes of this report and comparability with other studies, we used a variant of this set of classifications for the population estimates.

Although research has shown that Jewish adults who are “JBR” are, overall, more engaged Jewishly than those who are “JNR,” these classifications are too broad to provide insight about the range of Jewish behaviors and attitudes within each group. We developed a new set of categories specifically for this study that are based on behavior rather than self-identification. We refer to these categories as the “Index of Jewish Engagement.”

Index of Jewish Engagement

We specifically designed the Index of Jewish Engagement to identify opportunities for increased engagement for groups with different needs and interests. The Index focuses on the ways in which individuals occupy and involve themselves in Jewish life. Such behaviors are concrete and measurable expressions of Jewish identity. In many cases, behaviors are correlated with demographic characteristics, background, and attitudes. Jewish adults’ decisions to take part in activities may reflect the value and meaning they find in these activities, the priority they place on them, the level of skills and resources that enable them to participate, and the opportunities available and known to them. We are interested in how Pittsburgh-area Jews think about their Jewish identities and participate in Jewish life.

To develop the Index, we selected a range of Jewish behaviors that were included in the survey instrument. The set of Jewish behaviors used to develop the typology are inclusive of the different ways—public and private—that contemporary Jews engage with Jewish life. Cultural activities, such as participation in educational programs, reading Jewish literature, and using Jewish sources on the web are included in addition to religious activities, such as attendance at religious services and observance of Jewish laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Some of the activities are located primarily within institutions (e.g., synagogue membership), while others are home-based (e.g., Passover seders). These behaviors are classified into four dimensions of Jewish life: family and home-based practices, ritual practices, personal activities, and organizational participation. The behavioral measures include:

  • Family holiday celebrations: Participating in a Passover seder and lighting Hanukkah candles. Family holiday celebrations are practiced by many US Jews for religious and other reasons, e.g., social, familial, cultural, and ethnic. In contrast to High Holy Day services, these can be practiced at home without institutional
  • Ritual practices: Keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles or having a Shabbat dinner, attending religious services regularly, attending High Holy Day services, fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Personal activities: Engaging in cultural activities (book, music, TV, museum), reading Jewish material (newsletter, website), following news about Israel.
  • Communal activities: Belonging to a synagogue, belonging to a JCC or other Jewish organization, attending Jewish activity, volunteering for Jewish organizations, donating to Jewish causes.

We employed a statistical tool, latent class analysis (LCA), to cluster similar patterns of behavior based on respondents’ answers to survey questions. LCA identifies groups of behaviors that “cluster” together by analyzing patterns of responses. The result of the LCA analysis was the identification of five unique patterns of Jewish engagement.

Patterns of Jewish Engagement

Within the set of behaviors listed above, Jewish individuals make unique choices regarding their participation in Jewish private and communal life. Nonetheless, individual sets of choices can be clustered into patterns of behavior that are similar to one another. Applying LCA to the data from the survey responses yielded five distinct patterns of behavior and engagement with Jewish life in Greater Pittsburgh. The patterns are described below. Table 3.1 shows, for each pattern, the level of participation in each of the 15 behaviors that were used to construct the Index of Jewish Engagement.

Using LCA, each Jewish adult in the community was classified into one of the five engagement groups according to the pattern that most closely matches the individual’s participation in different types of Jewish behaviors. The classification enables us to understand the characteristics of people who participate in Jewish life in different ways: the demographics, background, and attitudes that are associated with each pattern of participation. For purposes of this report, the names of the engagement groups will be used to refer to the groups of Jewish adults who most closely adhere to each pattern. The names of the groups were developed specifically for this study and are intended to highlight the behaviors that distinguish each group from the others.

The five patterns differ both in degree and types of engagement with a broad set of Jewish behaviors. Two patterns exhibit engagement with all aspects of Jewish life including holiday, ritual, personal, and communal behaviors. For Jews with the “Immersed” pattern, all behaviors are practiced by large majorities of the group, with the exception of volunteering and cultural activities. Those with the “Connected” pattern have high participation in many of the activities, though less so than the Immersed group. However, the Connected attend Shabbat dinners and services and observe kashrut much less often than do the Immersed.

Two groups represent medium levels of engagement. In comparing these two groups, the “Involved” group has lower levels of Jewish holiday observance and synagogue membership, but a greater share participate in Jewish personal activities and Jewish organizations aside from synagogues. In contrast, the “Holiday” group has higher levels of kashrut observance, Jewish holiday observance, and synagogue membership, but lower participation in Jewish personal and communal activities.

The lowest level of engagement is found in the “Minimally Involved” group, in which only minorities participate in any of the activities listed, including 2% of the total population who participate in none of them.

The Connected and Involved patterns describe the largest groups, each comprising 29% of Jewish adults. The Immersed pattern reflects 16% of the Jewish population. Each of the other groups accounts for less than one-in-seven Pittsburgh Jewish adults. The remainder of this chapter describes the distinguishing characteristics of each of the five groups.

Jewish Behaviors and Jewish Engagement

As shown in Table 3.1, the Jewish behaviors across the five engagement patterns vary widely, but all patterns include at least some behaviors that represent a connection to Jewish life. This section focuses on the 15 behaviors used to construct the typology of Jewish engagement. Later chapters of this report relate these patterns to specific areas of Jewish communal engagement and attitudes about Judaism and Jewish life.

Family Holidays

The home-based holidays of Passover and Hanukkah are widely observed. They are almost universal in the Immersed and Connected groups and widespread in the Involved and Holiday groups. Only a minority in the Minimally Involved group observe them.

Table 3.1 Behaviors used to construct Index of Jewish Engagement

 ImmersedConnectedInvolvedHolidayMinimally Involved
Family holidays
Passover seder (typically)100%98%77%70%10%
Hanukkah (typically)100%97%73%97%14%
Kosher at home or always66%6%3%28%1%
Shabbat candles or dinner (usually/always)99%26%21%24%0%
Services at least monthly89%23%1%2%0%
Yom Kippur fast (all or part of day)99%92%46%72%2%
High Holy Day services (any in 2016)100%95%8%42%0%
Personal activities
Jewish cultural activities weekly or more (book, music, TV, museum)54%14%14%4%1%
Jewish news or websites monthly or more100%91%97%42%19%
Israel news monthly or more93%79%78%57%56%
Communal activities
Synagogue member96%67%5%22%0%
Organization (JCC, formal, informal)79%64%58%25%10%
Volunteered with or for a Jewish organization in past month41%33%12%5%1%
Donated to a Jewish organization in past year95%90%71%33%14%

Ritual Activities

Other than kashrut, all ritual practices are observed by almost all of those in the Immersed group. Observance of the High Holy Days, through synagogue attendance and fasting on Yom Kippur, is nearly universal among those in the Connected group. Among those in the Involved group, almost half (46%) fast on Yom Kippur, but few (8%) attend High Holy Day services. Less than half (42%) of those in the Holiday group attend services on High Holy Days, but a larger share (72%) fast on Yom Kippur. Very few in the Minimally Involved group follow any Jewish rituals.

Personal Activities

Nearly all those from the Immersed group visit Jewish websites and seek news about Israel regularly, and half participate in cultural activities weekly. The Connected and Involved groups are similar in their participation in Jewish personal activities, with over 90% visiting Jewish websites and over three-quarters seeking news about Israel regularly. Those in the Holiday group participate less frequently, with about half visiting Jewish websites (42%) and seeking news about Israel (57%). A minority of those in the Minimally Involved group (19%) access Jewish news and websites, but about half (56%) do seek out news about Israel monthly.

Communal Activities

Communal activities include memberships and participation in synagogue and organizational life. Nearly all (96%) of the Immersed group are synagogue members, as are 67% of the Connected and 22% of the Holiday groups. Few or none of the other groups are synagogue members.

Organization membership, activity, and support through donations is highest among those in the Immersed group, followed by the Connected and Involved groups.

Demographics and Jewish Engagement

Respondents’ demographic characteristics and their patterns of engagement are linked. Tables 3.2, 3.3, and 3.4 show the distribution of selected demographic characteristics within the Jewish engagement categories. To best understand demographic patterns, it is useful to compare the distribution of each demographic category across the engagement groups to that of the overall adult Jewish population, shown in the bottom row of each table. This comparison indicates where each engagement group differs from the overall population. See Appendix B for a table showing the distribution of engagement groups within each demographic characteristic (i.e., column totals rather than row totals).

Note that the overall rows in these tables do not necessarily match those given elsewhere in the report because they are based only on the subset of Jewish adults who provided sufficient information for assignment of a Jewish engagement category.

There are some age differences across the engagement groups (Table 3.2). The Holiday group has the largest proportion, 38%, of 18-to-34 year olds and the smallest proportion, 17%, of those ages 65 and over. The Minimally Involved group includes the smallest proportion of adults ages 18-34, 6%, and fully half of adults ages 50-64.

The proportion of Jewish adults who are married, married to a Jewish person, and have children varies across groups (Table 3.3). About three-quarters of the Immersed and Connected group members are married, compared to about half of those in the Holiday and Minimally Involved groups. Large majorities of those in the Connected (86%) and Immersed (84%) groups are inmarried, compared to two-thirds (67%) of the Involved, a little over half of the Holiday (52%), and one-sixth (16%) of those in the Minimally Involved groups. The Minimally Involved group members have the highest rate of parents with minor children (25%), and the Holiday (15%) and Involved (14%) groups have the smallest share of parents.

Table 3.2 Age by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
Minimally Involved6245020100

Table 3.3 Marriage and children by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
 MarriedUnmarriedInmarried (of married)Intermarried (of married)Has childrenNo children
Minimally Involved495116842575


Within the Immersed, Involved, and Holiday groups, about one- third (of the adults describe themselves as prosperous or very comfortable (Table 3.4). In the other groups, around half characterize their standard of living as prosperous or very comfortable.

Table 3.4 Standard of living by Jewish engagement (% of Jewish adults)

(% of Jewish adults)
 Prosperous/very comfortableNot prosperous 
Minimally Involved4555100

Jewish Background and Jewish Engagement

The following tables describe the Jewish identity and Jewish backgrounds of those in each Jewish engagement category. Tables 3.5, 3.6, and 3.7 show the distribution of selected Jewish identity characteristics across the Jewish engagement categories (row totals) in comparison to the overall Jewish adult population (last row). See Appendix B for a table showing the distribution of engagement groups within each demographic characteristic (i.e., column totals rather than row totals).

Note that the overall rows in these tables do not necessarily match those given elsewhere in the report because they are based only on the subset of Jewish adults who provided sufficient information for assignment of a Jewish engagement category.

Jewish denomination corresponds closely to Jewish engagement but is not identical (Table 3.5). The Immersed group has the largest share of Orthodox (46%) and Conservative (32%). The Connected group has the largest share of Reform Jews (54%). Of the Minimally Involved group, 81% do not identify with any denomination.

Table 3.5 Denomination by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
Minimally Involved0011781100

Table 3.6 Jewish identity by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
Minimally Involved2971100

All of those in the Immersed group (100%) and the vast majority of those in the Connected (97%) and Holiday (89%) groups are Jewish by religion (JBR; Table 3.6). In comparison, about three-quarters (76%) of those in the Involved group are JBR. The Minimally Involved group has the largest proportion (71%) who identify as Jews of no religion (JNR) or Jews of multiple religions (JMR).

Jewish engagement in adulthood is also linked to Jewish background. Overall, 74% of Greater Pittsburgh Jewish adults were raised by two Jewish parents (Table 3.7); this rate is higher for the Immersed and Connected groups and lower for the Minimally Involved group. The majority of those in the Immersed group (83%) and the Holiday group (63%) had some Jewish education in childhood, as did slightly more than half of those in the Connected and Involved groups (57%).

One-fifth (21%) of those in the Minimally Involved group had any Jewish education in childhood.

Table 3.7 Jewish background by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
 Parents inmarriedHad Jewish education
Minimally Involved3821