Non-Denominational & Post-Denominational

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

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Over the last two decades, as Conservative educational institutions matured and expanded, the movement has managed to convince some of its most committed youngsters of the virtues of a modern, halakhic Jewish life, one marked by learning and observance, piety, and community. Unfortunately, this achievement encompassed only a minority of Conservative Jews (albeit a critical leadership group), leaving them often frustrated or disappointed with Conservative congregations that had failed to move down the same path. On the one hand, it is remarkable that about 30 percent of Conservative parents now send their children to day school; on the other hand, many of them must be frustrated to be in congregations where most of their fellow members have, in effect, "rejected" the day school option.

Not surprisingly, signs point to the outflow of some of the most committed and capable Conservative Jews, be they to Orthodoxy or, in a few cases, to post-denominational institutions. In 1990, among those affiliated with synagogues, just 5 percent of Conservative-raised Jews identified with Orthodoxy as adults. In 2000, the comparable number had doubled to 10 percent, representing the loss of some of the most capable potential leadership for Conservative congregations. At the same time, the movement from Orthodoxy to Conservatism declined sharply. In 1990, as many as 46 percent of those raised Orthodox who were synagogue-affiliated identified as Conservative.

By 2000, the comparable proportion dropped to 26 percent. Thus, over the ten-year span, Orthodoxy strengthened relative to Conservatism in three respects. First, Orthodox  affiliation grew, while Conservative affiliation declined. Second, Conservative "defections" to Orthodoxy doubled, and third, "acquisitions" from Orthodoxy by Conservatism declined.

In the Jewish communal world, Federations have favored so-called community schools over Solomon Schechter schools, even though the former still appeal to largely Conservative constituencies, and even as the lack of a denominational label may impede the adoption of a clear and effective religious persona. In the long run, this policy, like others, may well enlarge the post-denominational segment at the expense of the dwindling Conservative population.

Upside & Downside

Like most phenomena in Jewish life, the emergence of more Jews who resist denominational labels carries with it both positive and negative implications, both opportunities and dangers. In most circumstances, the non-denominationally identified speak to weaker aspects of Jewish life today, as they emerge from the growing number of the intermarried or children of the intermarried, with commensurate lack of affiliation with congregations.

But, alongside (and often confused with) these non-denominational Jews, we find clusters of highly engaged Jews who may be labeled trans-denominational, post-denominational or, as I have argued, often post-Conservative. These Jews and the several innovative and vibrant institutions they have founded of late speak to new signs of vitality and creativity in Jewish life, albeit often at the expense of the Conservative Movement.

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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.