Chapter 5 – Synagogue and Ritual Life

Religious and ritual observance constitute one way Pittsburgh Jews express their Jewish identities. Synagogues have long been the central communal and religious “home” for American Jews, and membership in a congregation is one of the key ways Jews affiliate with the Jewish community.

Synagogue membership notwithstanding, many Jews participate in rituals on a daily or intermittent basis at home. Some Jews perform rituals for religious reasons, while other Jews are motivated by civic, familial, and cultural reasons.

Synagogues and Congregations

In the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community, 35% of households (approximately 9,400) belong to a synagogue or another Jewish worship community of some type (Table 5.1). Thirty-eight percent of Jewish adults live in synagogue-member households, comparable to that of the rest of the country (39%) but lower than rates found in 2002 (53%).

Synagogue affiliation models appear to be changing. In many cities, even as overall synagogue membership rates are declining, alternatives to “brick-and-mortar” synagogues such as independent minyanim have grown in popularity, and voluntary contributions have replaced dues in some congregations.

For this study, respondents indicated whether they were members of “a Jewish congregation, such as a synagogue, temple, minyan, chavurah, or High Holy Day congregation.” Members were asked to name each congregation (up to five) and, for each one, to indicate whether they pay dues, consider themselves members without paying dues, or dues are not required for membership. Using this information, all congregations that could be identified were coded with a type and denomination. One-fifth of Jewish households (19%) indicate that they are dues-paying members of a brick-and-mortar synagogue (Table 5.1a).

Synagogue membership is nearly universal among those in the Immersed group (94%), and nearly two-thirds (63%) of those in the Connected group and about one-fifth (21%) of the Holiday group are synagogue members. Very few in the Involved or Minimally Involved groups have joined a congregation.

Rates of congregational membership are similar across all regions.

Those who have lived in the community for less than 10 years are the most likely to be members of any congregation (39%; Table 5.1b) but the least likely to pay dues to a brick-and-mortar synagogue (6%). Pittsburgh’s longest-term Jewish residents are less likely to be members of a congregation (30%); most who are members belong to congregations with traditional building or membership structures.

About half (54%) of inmarried households are synagogue members of any type, compared to about three-tenths (30%) of intermarried households. Although adults ages 18-34 are as likely as those 65 and older to belong to any type of congregation, very few of the former group pay dues to a brick-and-mortar synagogue. As might be expected, nearly all (90%) Orthodox Jews are members of a congregation of some sort. Nearly half of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jewish population are dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues. However, a higher proportion than otherwise might be expected are members of congregations that do not require dues for membership. The strong presence of Chabad throughout the Greater Pittsburgh area partially explains this finding.

Table 5.1a Synagogue membership

(% of Jewish households; row %)
 Any synagogue memberBrick-and-mortar, dues-paying
Minimally Involved00
Squirrel Hill3621
Rest of Pittsburgh3618
South Hills3726
North Hills3225
Rest of region3616

Table 5.1b Synagogue membership

(% of Jewish households; row %)
 Any synagogue member Brick-and-mortar, dues-paying
Length of Residence
<10 years396
10-19 years3217
20+ years3019
Household Structure
Single adult(s)2113
Household has child(ren)3417
No children3117
Respondent Age
Conservative 5725

Five percent of member households belong to synagogues that are out of the region, and 22% belong to congregations that could not be identified from the responses. Eleven percent of member households belong to multiple synagogues or worship groups. In all, 2% of member households belong to both a brick-and-mortar synagogue and an alternative.Among synagogue member households, 76% are dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues, and 12% indicate that they are members of synagogues but do not pay dues—including those congregations where dues are not required (Table 5.2). Overall, 15% of synagogue member households belong to an alternative congregational structure, including a minyan or chavurah (8% of member households; 3% of all households) and Chabad (7% of member households; 3% of all households).

Table 5.2 Household membership in congregations of different types

(% of synagogue member households)
Note: Total exceeds 100% because some households are members of more than one type of congregation.
Congregation type% of households
Brick-and-mortar synagogue, pays dues76
Brick-and-mortar synagogue, doesn't pay dues12
Independent 8
Out of area5

Among households who are members of brick-and-mortar synagogues, nearly all (93%) are members of Orthodox (20%), Conservative (24%) or Reform (52%) congregations (Table 5.3). Eight percent are members of synagogues with other denominations (e.g., Renewal or Reconstructionist) or no denomination.

Table 5.3 Denomination of brick-and-mortar synagogues

(% of brick-and-mortar member households)
Note: Total exceeds 100% because some households are members of more than one type of congregation.
 % of households
Conservative 24
Other denomination, nondenominational8

Of households that do not currently belong to a synagogue, 40% (or 26% of all households) formerly did so. Respondents who indicated that no one in their households were members of Jewish congregations were asked to identify the reasons why they were not members. About half (45%) of these respondents indicated that they did not join because they were not religious, one- quarter cited the cost of membership, and one-quarter indicated membership was not a priority. Seventeen percent had not joined because of the lack of a good fit for them, and 12% said they were not members because they had no children at home.

Respondents were also given the opportunity to cite other reasons for not joining a synagogue, and 120 did so. Of these, the most common reasons cited were not liking the rabbi or the leadership of the congregation (15) and social reasons, such as not feeling welcome (10). Small numbers of respondents cited other reasons such as not going often enough or political disagreement with members or congregational leaders, and others indicated plans to join in the future.

Several respondents elaborated on their reasons for not joining a synagogue. One wrote, “They never seemed interested in childless adults.” Another said he or she has donated to and attended High Holy Day services at a local congregation for decades but did not join. One respondent felt there was too much pressure to volunteer: “Chairing a committee and participating on others didn’t seem enough for some reason.”

Synagogue Participation

Both members and non-members of synagogues participate to varying degrees in synagogue life, including attending religious services or other synagogue-based programs, volunteering, or donating (Tables 5.4a and 5.4b). Over three-quarters (79%) of Jewish adults attended at least one religious service in the past year, with attendance nearly universal among those who are part of the Immersed and Connected groups. Almost one-quarter of adult Jews (24%) attended monthly or more, and 52% attended High Holiday services. Nearly all (90%) of those in the Immersed group and nearly three-fifths (59%) of those in the Connected group say they “very much” felt comfortable the last time they attended services, compared to, on average, one-third of respondents in the other engagement groups. Notably, the Immersed group is the only engagement group in which a majority say their spiritual needs were “very much” met the last time they attended services, as well as the only group in which a minority say they felt at all disconnected from the people in the congregation. The only substantial difference by region is that those who live in Squirrel Hill are most likely to report they attended services monthly or more, and South Hills residents are far less likely to have attended High Holy Day services.

Table 5.4a Synagogue participation

(% of Jewish adults)
 Attended services everAttended services monthly or moreAttended High Holy Day servicesFelt comfortable, very muchSpiritual needs met, very muchFelt disconnected, at all
Minimally Involved50016688
Squirrel Hill783566623557
Rest of Pittsburgh672252542660
South Hills551030711964
North Hills711357492569
Rest of region692151402272

Table 5.4b Synagogue participation

(% of Jewish adults)
 Attended services everAttended services monthly or moreAttended High Holiday servicesFelt comfortable, very muchSpiritual needs met, very muchFelt disconnected, at all
Length of Residence
<10 years843670602367
10-19 years712552452577
20+ years652049572859
Household Structure
Single adult(s)652043592462
Household has child(ren)692156572670
No children692352563061
Respondent Age
Conservative 803374592252

Newcomers to the community attended services more frequently than more established residents and were most likely to say they “very much” felt comfortable and that their spiritual needs were met the last time they attended services (Table 5.4b). Young adults were also among the most frequent attendees and among the most content in their experience at services.

Ritual Practices

The majority of Pittsburgh’s Jewish adults mark Jewish holidays over the course of the year, with 79% lighting Chanukah candles and 76% attending a Passover seder (Tables 5.5a and 5.5b).

Chanukah celebrations are nearly universal among the Immersed, Connected, and Holiday engagement groups but less frequent among members of the Involved and Minimally Involved groups. By contrast, Shabbat candle-lighting is widespread among those in the Immersed group but is less frequent for all other groups. Notably, residents of South Hills were less likely to participate in most of the rituals assessed in this study than residents of other areas.

Table 5.5a Ritual practices

(% of Jewish adults)
 Light Hanukkah candlesAttend Passover sederEver light Shabbat candlesHave Shabbat mealFast on Yom Kippur*Observe any kosher law
Minimally Involved14105014
Squirrel Hill858758436643
Rest of Pittsburgh778038304631
South Hills685842404743
North Hills888433165826
Rest of region847140245837
*Note. The 44% of those who did not fast (not shown in table) includes 10% who could not do so for medical reasons.

Table 5.5b Ritual practices

(% of Jewish adults)
 Light Hanukkah CandlesAttend Passover sederEver light Shabbat candlesHave Shabbat mealFast on Yom KippurObserve any kosher law
Length of Residence
<10 years929060406645
10-19 years827853335039
20+ years777540315337
Household Structure
Single adult(s)676633405344
Household has child(ren)827653365732
No children797842325540
Respondent Age

Compared to 2002, similar proportions of Jews in the community usually or always light Shabbat candles and keep kosher, and a smaller proportion attend religious services monthly or more (Table 5.6). Compared to US Jews as a whole, Pittsburgh-area Jews are more likely to attend Passover seders but attend services slightly less frequently. They light Shabbat candles at about the same rates as the national Jewish community.

Table 5.6 Ritual practices in Pittsburgh 2017, Pittsburgh 2002, and Pew 2013

(% of Jewish adults)
 Pittsburgh 2017Pittsburgh 2002Pew 2013
Shabbat Candles
Religious service attendance
Less than monthly465355
Monthly or more243323
Other rituals
Keep kosher at home1519-
Seder last year76-70