The Jewish Denominations

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Not too long ago, one’s Jewish affiliation was marked by a specific denominational categorization. That remains true today for many Jews, but the picture is more complicated in an age where people tend to shun labels and are less likely than in the past to define themselves via institutions and mainstream categories.

One ramification of recent trends is the growth of “transdenominationalism,” an outlook that is inclusive of all the different denominations. In some cases, transdenominationalism is a necessity–creating a community high school, for example, in a place in which individual synagogues don’t have the resources available to start denominationally affiliated schools. Transdenominational day schools have popped up in mid-size Jewish communities that don’t have the numbers to support a day school for individual denominations.

JTS

Some Jews use “transdenominational” as the way they label their kind of Judaism–acknowledging that they don’t fit entirely into the box of one denomination. A “transdenominational” Jew may, for instance, davven (worship) at one type of synagogue, but send his or her children to a school of a different denomination. Retreat centers, like Elat Chayyim in upstate New York, choose “transdenominational” as a way to describe their honoring of the many Jewish paths available through the various denominations in the Jewish world today.

While many Jews appreciate this approach, still more find comfort and resonance in connecting with a specific Jewish denomination. In an era like today’s, when affiliation with a mainstream institution is often shunned, religious denominations can face hard times, and Judaism’s main groups are facing myriad challenges today:

- The Reform movement is America’s largest group–and many of its members proudly connect to the “Reform” part, appreciating their denomination’s historical emphasis on prophetic Judaism and social action, personal choice in ritual matters, and embrace of patrilineal descent (considering as Jewish children whose fathers are Jewish and mothers are not, in contrast to traditional Jewish law, which considers only those with Jewish mothers or acceptable conversions to be Jewish). At the same time, the Reform movement has in recent years begun to embrace traditional observances it shunned a generation ago, signaling a new affinity for Jewish ritual among many Reform Jews. In 1999, the movement issued a set of guidelines known as The Pittsburgh Platform, which encourages Reform Jews to study Hebrew and Torah, observe Shabbat, and recognize the importance of mitzvot (commandments). 

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