What’s In a Name? Insights on Young Adults and Denomination Labels

October 29, 2019 | News

By Shai Weener

One by one, the six people at the table — all in their 20s and 30s and identifying as Jewish — went around and answered the question “how would you define your Jewish denominational background?”

“I grew up Conservative. I still identify but not with the practice.”

“Raised Conservative / traditional-ish. Didn’t keep Shabbat. But if it were to be black and white, I would say I’m modern Orthodox.”

“The temple we went to growing up was Reform, but now I would say I’m spiritually Jewish. I’m religious on my own terms.”
“I went to Chabad since I was 5, but not because I affiliated with it. No idea what denomination that makes me.”

“Grew up Conservative but went to a Reform camp. Didn’t eat shellfish or pork.”

No one at the table defined themselves with traditional denominational labels. No one was clearly “Orthodox” or “Reform.” No one felt like one word could explain where they had been Jewishly, let alone where they feel they are at today.

With many projects I’ve worked on at Rosov Consulting, clients often pause when we discuss with them the types of demographic questions to ask their audiences. Should we ask about denomination? If so, how should that question be framed? Is it about personal identity? Affiliation to a synagogue currently? Affiliation when you were younger? Even if we do decide to ask about denomination, past research and data show this question — and answers to it — is becoming increasingly irrelevant. In the GenZ Now report, Levites and Sayfan discuss how teens these days don’t connect with a denomination. A recent report we conducted for the Hadar Institute showed that in a span of six months, 36% of alumni from their immersive programs had shifted denominations, many to label themselves as having “No Denomination.” This got me thinking, why, in general, don’t people in their 20s and 30s find denominations relevant?

I posted on my personal Facebook page asking whether or not Jewish young adults identify with any of the current denominations, and, if not, why not? After this small post generated extensive conversation both on and offline, I realized there is a lot to unpack around this question and decided to host a Moishe House–sponsored event titled “Dinner and discussion: labeling our Judaism.” The premise was simple: with many people struggling to categorize their Judaism, let’s talk about how we feel about these long-standing labels, and, frankly, labels in general. The discussion was anything but simple (as the quotes above demonstrate). Like an onion, and Shrek, Judaism has layers.

Asking a young adult to label their Judaism often elicits a guarded response. People justify, qualify, and minimize any summarizing statement they make because, to many, one succinct phrase or name couldn’t possibly touch on the extent of nuance in their Judaism. This is exactly what played out at the dinner — for me as well. I find myself changing my personal Jewish labels depending on the setting I’m in. This idea resonates with a lot of people — my Judaism, like for many others, is complicated. The concept of denominations fails to capture that. This seems like it could be a fitting explanation given that, according to the Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 32% of Millennial Jews identify as Jews of no religion (up from 26% for GenX and 19% for Boomers). My conclusion was simple, denominations are just a thing of a past. “Great,” I thought, “I got the answer I wanted from this dinner. Time for bed.” But, just as I thought the night was closing, a conversation began to drastically shift my perspective.

One person began a statement by saying “as someone that grew up Reform, I…” Except, after they finished their statement, another person at the table who grew up attending Reform institutions retorted “well, I definitely didn’t grow up that way.” I posed a simple question to the group: “What do you mean by Reform?” Things got quiet. A few shrugs later, I took a step back: “Everyone in this room has mentioned the name of at least one specific denomination. What do you mean when you say each of these? What do each of these movements represent?” Silence. Glances around the room. More shrugs. The only response related to institutions — “People who align with Orthodox institutions are Orthodox, Reform institutions are Reform, etc.” But what does it mean for an institution to be a Conservative institution, for example? No one could really answer, but this idea of understanding “denomination” still stuck with me. I needed to know more.

I spent the following weeks asking almost everyone I know about denomination. Do they identify with a denomination? If yes, which one? Also, how do they define that denomination? If they don’t, why not? If the “why not” was because none of the specific denominations seemed to resonate, I would ask why none of the denominations resonated and if they knew what made the denominations different. From these conversations, I began to realize that there is a major lack of knowledge about the denominations — both for people who identify and those who don’t. People seem to have this abstract idea of what each denomination is — they can picture it in their mind but struggle to articulate it in words — yet most of that stems more from personal experience (or lack thereof) than actual knowledge.

There often is talk among leaders and stakeholders in the field of Jewish engagement and education about the future of Jewish institutions, given the minimal level of commitment “my generation” has. Temporarily putting aside the notion that maybe the concept of commitment has changed, without the deeper understanding of the fundamental beliefs and practices that define a group, though, how can we commit to something we don’t fully understand? And, if the way those beliefs and practices are explained feel outdated or irrelevant, how can we feel a connection strong enough to label or associate ourselves? Maybe denominations are no longer relevant, and people’s Judaism is no longer able to be defined or labeled. Or maybe, the purpose of denominations has changed, and people’s Judaism merely can’t be labeled or defined in the same way it used to be.

At Rosov Consulting, working across the spectrum of Jewish organizations, it is our job to help our clients understand the different and dynamic nature of young Jewish adults. We will continue to frame and reframe the questions we ask about denomination so as to provide meaningful and useful data for our clients as we seek to understand and unpack these ideas ourselves.

Shai Weener is a Data Analyst at Rosov Consulting.

Note: Moishe House is a client of Rosov Consulting. The dinner referenced here was unrelated to our consulting work with them.

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