It seems like the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh conducts a comprehensive community study roughly once a generation, so the newly released 2017 study described in last week’s Chronicle is a major milestone. It is also a welcome one, and will help guide our community’s planning and choices for years to come.
The study goes a long way toward informing us how large and what kind of Jewish community we are today and will likely be in the near future, if current trends continue. In order to make our Jewish community the best it can possibly be, our challenge is to use the study to strategize about what we can and cannot change.
The first major finding, which undoubtedly surprised some people, is that we have bucked the regional trend for the Pittsburgh area by actually increasing in population since 2002, when the last study was conducted. In fact, our community’s population is close to its all-time high.
Many lifelong residents of Pittsburgh remember when synagogue services, religious schools and organization events were bursting with people, and assumed that today’s often lackluster attendance is due to a general decline in the region’s Jewish population. The study shows that definitely is not the case, so we have to look elsewhere for answers.
The second major finding will not surprise those familiar with the Pew Research Center’s 2013 national study of American Jews, because our local trends are very similar to what Pew found nationwide.
There are two divergent trends among the Orthodox and non-Orthodox parts of our community.
Orthodox Jews are maintaining high rates of affiliation and traditional involvement across generations, with low rates of intermarriage and an average family size above what sociologists call the replacement rate.
The non-Orthodox, on the other hand, are seeing much lower rates of affiliation and traditional involvement across generations, with very high rates of intermarriage and an average family size below the replacement rate.
The result is that the Orthodox, while still a distinct minority, represent a growing portion of our community, with likely profound impacts on the nature of our community in the future.
Characterizing the non-Orthodox segments of the community is fairly complicated, and the study shows a creative and technically sophisticated way of doing so. While the traditional segments of those formally affiliated to the Conservative and Reform movements have declined, the vast majority of the other members of our Jewish community are not totally uninvolved and uninterested.
In fact, many of the “unaffiliated” are involved in some aspects of Jewish life and community; many others undoubtedly would like to be so involved.
It would be easy to geshrey that our Jewish community is doomed to assimilation and demise — or at least the non-Orthodox portion of it — but that’s not the message of the community study. To come back to the first point about smaller attendance at events, it’s not that the Jews are no longer here. They are here; they’re just not showing up in traditional institutions in the same numbers.
Either the core of the organized community isn’t reaching them or they’re not choosing to participate in traditional modes with the organized community.
Our task then, is clear: Study the results of the community study as closely and carefully as Jews have traditionally studied the Talmud, and then experiment with new programs and new modes of reaching and engaging what has become the single largest segment of our Jewish community.
In the process of doing this pioneering work there are many examples of ideas and programs that we can learn from and implement. Some organizations in our community, including but not limited to the Federation, are already learning from each other and others around the country. Two recent examples are bringing the OneTable and Honeymoon Israel programs here.
As with technological progress, those institutions that are willing to adapt will continue and grow, and our community will be the better for it. PJC