Non-Denominational & Post-Denominational

Beyond the major movements--two tendencies in American Jewry.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission from Contact, the Journal of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation (Summer 2005).

In the last few years, two trends, distinctive but often conflated, have come to characterize the denominational identity patterns of American Jews. One we may call "non-denominationalism," in which Jews decline to see themselves as aligned with Orthodoxy, Conservatism, Reform, or Reconstructionism (the major denominational choices available to American Jews). On social surveys, when asked for their denominational identity, they answer, or are classified as, "Just Jewish," "Secular" or "Something else Jewish." In contrast, we have a relatively new phenomenon that embraces only a very small number of Jews, many of whom, it seems, are in their twenties and thirties.

This contrasting trend we may call "post-denominationalism." It refers to committed Jews, congregations and educational institutions that abjure a conventional denominational label for one reason or another. As individuals, they experience ideological and stylistic differences with the available denominational options. As institutions, their leaders seek to appeal to a multi-denominational constituency, be it of congregants, students or donors.

The Unaffiliated

Evidence for the rise of simple "non-denominationalism" comes from the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys, where we find that the number of adult Jews who decline to identify with a major denomination rose from 20 percent to 27 percent over the ten-year period. Both surveys testify to the lack of Jewish engagement of this group, that they are "non-denominational" rather than "post-denominational" (or, as some others might say, "trans-denominational"). Relative to Jews who affirm a denominational identity, non-denominational Jews disproportionately share the following characteristics:

- they were raised by intermarried parents;

- they are married to non-Jews; and

- they are unaffiliated with synagogues (12-15 percent vs. 50 percent of the denominationally identified).

iron star of davidIt is no surprise that non-denominational Jews score far lower on all measures of conventional Jewish engagement than do any of the denominationally identified, be they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist. (Of the four denominations, self-declared adherents of the latter two denominations report the lowest average levels of ritual observance, communal affiliation and subjective importance of being Jewish, but even they substantially out-score the nondenominational).

Committed, But Not to a Movement

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Dr. Steven M Cohen

Dr. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry, was appointed Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York. Dr. Cohen divides his time between New York and Jerusalem, where he has served as Professor at The Melton Centre for Jewish Education at The Hebrew University since 1992.