More and more Jewish Pittsburghers are turning away from conventional brick and mortar synagogues, opting instead to worship with pop-up communities, independent minyans or with one of the several Chabads around town, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study conducted by researchers at Brandeis University and commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
That study showed just over a third of Pittsburgh’s Jewish households count themselves as members of some sort of local Jewish worship group, with 19 percent belonging to conventional congregations and 17 percent opting to participate in “alternative” communities. The flip side of that coin is that almost two-thirds have no affiliation at all with a communal Jewish worship group.
Pittsburgh’s statistics mirror national trends. According to the 2013 Pew study of American Jewry, just one third of U.S. Jews are affiliated with a Jewish worship community.
The reasons so many local Jews are forgoing synagogues in favor of other options include flexibility, contemporary relevance and intimacy, the Chronicle learned while reporting on the phenomenon for this week’s issue. Some people pointed to feeling judged or uncomfortable at conventional congregations, and preferred the noncommittal nature of attending services with groups that are more “informal.” Others said they enjoyed the creativity of the independent minyans or their emphasis on music.
Are these progressive pop-ups taking congregants out of the pews of Pittsburgh’s synagogues? And if so, should we be worried?
Attending services at pop-up communities has historical precedent, according to Daniel Judson in his book “Pennies for Heaven: a History of American Synagogues and Money.” Back in the early 1900s on the Lower East Side of New York, several High Holiday minyans popped up in various storefronts, attracting worshippers wishing to avoid having to pay for seats to pray. The phenomenon drew the ire of several established congregations that joined together in written protest.
Conventional congregational affiliation is declining across religious denominations, a phenomenon that is not unique to Judaism, several national studies have shown. In 21st-century America, not all — or even most — Jews need or want synagogue life.
But lots of us do want something.
While it is possible that some of those who are choosing part-time worship communities would join a brick and mortar congregation if there were no other options, it seems unlikely that their attendance at services would increase as a result. Most whom the Chronicle interviewed were content with meeting just once a month. So, while membership in a conventional congregation might yield increased revenue for that congregation, it would not necessarily yield increased participation.
The independent minyans, Chabads and pop-ups that have been attracting so many members of Jewish Pittsburgh are obviously filling a need. They are attracting scores of participants — granted, not weekly, but occasionally — and bringing Jews together in community, fellowship and, in most cases, spirituality.
This is work that also can be done in brick and mortar congregations, and certainly several of our synagogues are offering alternative types of worship and other programs. For many in our community seeking alternatives, these congregations can fill those needs.
For some who are looking for connection without commitment, though, these pop-ups and independent minyans may be the answer. We encourage Pittsburgh’s organized Jewish community to welcome these alternative groups — to see them not as threats, but as ways to augment Jewish life here — and to learn from their continued success. PJC