Pew study points to shrinking “Jewish middle”
Local leaders are responding by uprooting long-standing traditions or returning to conventional practices
With demographic studies pointing to an ever-shrinking “Jewish middle,” local community leaders are responding by either uprooting long-standing traditions or returning to conventional practices as a means of engagement. Regardless of the approach, the consensus seems to be that more is needed to attract, captivate and empower what has become a statistically at-risk community.
The Jewish community is marked for “contraction and weakening,” sociologist Steven Cohen declared in a paper this year, as “the Jewish middle is shrinking, while the nominally Jewish are growing, and Orthodox numbers are exploding.”
With reliance upon the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, Cohen followed the patterns of “5 million-plus Jewish adults” in the United States and determined that 45 percent are “unengaged,” 9 percent are “Orthodox,” and the remaining 46 percent “comprise the Jewish Middle.”
The latter group “trail the Orthodox with respect to having mostly Jewish friends (40 percent vs. 90 percent), fasting on Yom Kippur (69 percent vs. 100 percent), belonging to a synagogue (43 percent vs. 72 percent), giving to a Jewish charity (72 percent vs. 95 percent) and feeling very attached to Israel (39 percent vs. 62 percent),” Cohen concluded.
The conclusion “is inescapable,” he remarked. “Put simply, the number of middle-aged non-Orthodox Jews who are engaged in Jewish life is dropping sharply today, and will drop even further in the next 20 to 40 years. And, absent significant policy changes, their numbers will continue to drop for years thereafter.”
Local reaction to the Pew Report and Cohen’s findings has fluctuated.
“There is no escaping the fact that demography and sociology and economics currently work against the traditional synagogue model,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation, a Reform congregation in Shadyside. “Our congregations were organized and built around certain assumptions about affiliation patterns and what the community was looking for from synagogues, and today it is not clear that those assumptions hold up.
“Where once people joined early in life and traditionally maintained their membership into old age,” he added, “today people are waiting longer to establish families, to feel as though they have a firm hold on their careers, and no longer require the synagogue in the same way as did their parents and grandparents.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill, said, “First of all, if we are to say that Beth Shalom represents the Jewish middle in Pittsburgh, if we take that as a premise here, I don’t think that we are shrinking, because my community is growing, our synagogue is growing, our membership is growing. So that’s a good thing right there. Now are we changing? The answer is absolutely yes. We have to.”
“Congregations,” echoed Bisno, “like many of our civic and cultural institutions are being forced to contend with new realities.”
Such is evident at the Parkway Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Monroeville. “We are getting smaller and smaller, members are dying or moving out of the area,” said Robert Korfin, Parkway’s president.
Several congregations have recently implemented strategies to combat larger demographic trends. Beth Shalom, for instance, introduced programs emphasizing intellectualism and fraternization.
“What I am trying to do is emphasize the values to be gleaned from textual study, because I don’t think that is something the Conservative movement has emphasized in the past,” Adelson said of the intellectual push.
He contended that where some institutions might respond to Jewish alienation by strengthening ritual, that has actually further alienated a population that is increasingly likely to shun ritual altogether.
“And so the challenge that I see, and really the only way forward for synagogues, is to create other avenues, and those other avenues have to include small group experiences, usually created around some kind of learning,” explained Adelson. “So while I think there will always be a need for synagogue services, I think that we are thinking more broadly about how to connect Jews with Jewish tradition.”
He pointed to Shababababa, a monthly program for families that welcomes roughly 120 people for abbreviated prayers and a subsequent meal in the congregation’s ballroom.
It is a “Friday night dinner that is framed with the Shabbat rituals,” said the rabbi. “It often attracts people who are not even Jewish: families who go to our [Early Learning Center]. … There are not only interfaith families, but stam non-Jews, because it is fun.”
Similarly, Beth Shalom is hosting a young adult retreat later in the summer “aimed at the 23-45 demographic,” a historically underserved group in the modern era.
Similar undertakings will occur elsewhere, noted Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is excited to be launching two initiatives in the coming year aimed at connecting young adults to their Judaism: Honeymoon Israel and OneTable,” said Bardack. Whereas “Honeymoon Israel creates a local cohort of young couples to attend a trip to Israel tailor-made to encourage reflection and discussion of Jewish identity, OneTable supports young adults to create their own authentic in-home Shabbat dinners, with the ultimate goal of forming a lifelong Shabbat practice.
“Both programs find Jews who are not entering Jewish community programs or institutions, and inspire them to find value in Jewish life,” she added.
If there’s a theme emerging, it’s that millennials are the must-serve group to ensure a bright Jewish future. While citing Pew’s data, Aliza Kline, CEO of OneTable, said, “Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media.”
Carolyn Frischer, a millennial herself and the membership engagement director at Rodef Shalom Congregation, took issue with the view that she and her cohorts are somehow approaching Judaism — or any congregational activity, for that matter — “wrong.”
“It’s interesting for me,” she said, “because we always blame the youngest generation. Instead, of inculpating some, why don’t we ask, ‘What can we learn from that generation to make congregations stronger instead of repeating the same things; and how can we keep everyone here? How can we attract more people here?’”
Nancy Gale, immediate past president of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Squirrel Hill, made similar inquiries.
“Changing cultural patterns meant that synagogue membership was no longer viewed as an obligation, and a large, fixed payment didn’t make sense when we were trying to lower barriers of entry,” Gale said. So, after 18 months of study, her board of trustees adopted a “voluntary dues model.”
“What’s key is that we let the congregation know on a per-household basis what it costs to run the congregation, what our operating expenses are,” she said. “We are telling them that, and we are saying, ‘Here is the sustaining amount on a per-household basis, and you tell us what you can pay.’”
But as innovative as the move to a voluntary dues model is — Temple Sinai is believed to be the first Reform congregation in Western Pennsylvania to adopt the approach — Parkway Jewish Center has been promoting a “Dues You Choose” strategy for roughly 15 years.
“We heard about congregations who were doing it out on the West Coast,” said Korfin, “and I thought to myself, ‘We’re either going to go to this new system or we’re going to close our doors sooner than we want.’”
The change, as well as keeping costs at bay, has allowed the congregation to survive.
Apart from the cantor and an executive administrator “who manages the daily operations from 9 until 1,” Parkway has eschewed many of the traditional shul trappings, Korfin pointed out. There is no rabbi, no Hebrew or Sunday school and very limited staff.
Few other financial asks are made apart from the “Dues You Choose” pitch.
“At Kol Nidre I hope that they’ll make some sort of contribution, even if it’s as little as $10,” said Korfin. “And, if we do a fundraiser, I want every family to participate either to buy something or sell something.”
Even with the tinkering, though, some congregations — such as Parkway — can’t escape larger trends. Parkway now has 70 families. When fixed-rate dues were abandoned more than a decade ago, “there were maybe 125-130 families,” said Korfin.
“When you are as small as we are, you have thoughts about when to pull the plug, to know when to say when and know when to close the doors,” he added. “I keep thinking maybe the next year, maybe the year after, but son of a gun, we’re still here.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at