The Limits of Denominational Identity

The classical way of talking about one’s Jewish identity and practice is through denomination. But denomination alone does not accurately portray one’s behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs.

The labels themselves are limiting and vague. Which is undoubtedly a contributing factor in why so many Jews are self-identifying with NO denomination.

In 2002, for instance, 17% of the Jewish population in Pittsburgh considered themselves “secular” or “just Jewish.” In 2017, that number jumped to 30%, right in line with what Pew found in their national survey in 2013.

(The 13% increase came at the expense of the Conservative and Reform movements, which dropped 10% and 7% respectively, in the 15 years. Orthodox, Reconstructionist/Renewal, and Other all increased by only slightly.)

These labels tell us little about the individual. Some people identify with the congregation to which they belong. Some borrow their parents’ labels. Other use the denomination of the rabbi toward whom they feel they strongest connection.

The label alone tells next to nothing about how any given person truly engages with his/her Jewish identity. But for decades, there was simply no alternative.

Until now.

As the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies researched our community, patterns emerged. Patterns that appear to be much stronger indicators of Jewish connectivity than denominational affiliation. The patterns were discovered through a statistical process called a latent class analysis that uncovers previously hidden groupings.

The researchers used 15 Jewish behaviors to develop the typology of each group. Some behaviors are private while some are public. Some are ritual while others are cultural. Some are communal while others are personal.

The 15 behaviors are:

Family holidays
1. Passover seder
2. Hanukkah

3. Kosher at home
4. Shabbat candles or dinner
5. Prayer Services
6. Yom Kippur fast
7. High Holy Day services

Personal activities 
8 .Jewish cultural activities weekly or more (book, music, TV, museum)
9. Jewish news or websites
10. Israel news monthly or more

Communal activities 
11. Synagogue member
12. Organization member (JCC, formal, informal)
13. Organization activity in past year
14. Volunteered with or for a Jewish organization in past month
15. Donated to a Jewish organization in past year

Talking about our community in terms of these patterns of Jewish engagement offers a much more fruitful approach than talking about denominations. These patterns extend far beyond the synagogue and offer us a window into the way different people practice their Judaism. The end result? A better ability for us to identify gaps in services.

We will dive into the differences between these groups in a series of posts to follow, but, for now, here is documented proof that the denominational labels don’t serve us properly.

Table 3.5 Denomination by Jewish engagement

(% of Jewish adults)
Minimally Involved0011781100

Look at the bottom row and see that NO DENOMINATION can mean anything. It’s the pattern of behavior that is much more telling. Aside from the upper right hand set of boxes, there is overlap between each denomination and each pattern of engagement.

As service providers across the community think about their market share… as they think about creating new programming (or adapting current programming)… as they think about marketing their programs and institutions… it will be enormously beneficial to think of their audiences in terms of these patterns of engagement.

Not all Jews are looking for the same types of Jewish experiences. Until now, we’re only been able to talk about the variances in terms of broad “Reform” and “Conservative” labels. But now, we have a deeper layer in which we can understand what different community members want in a Jewish program.

Our collective abilities to attract them to our programs paves the roads they walk along their Jewish journeys. It is our responsibility as service providers to pave the road as smoothly as possible so that each member of Jewish Pittsburgh can find suitable and appropriate Jewish programming.

With the Latent Class Analysis, our job should be that much easier.

More to follow…

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