December 2nd, 2007


Emergent Jewish Communities study

So as I mentioned last time, the eagerly-awaited Emergent Jewish Communities report from the S3K National Spiritual Communities Study were released on Friday. This study attempted to tackle the demographics of the trend of independent Jewish communities that have been sprouting up over the past decade or so. I was quite looking forward to this, because it's exciting to finally have some real data to back up all the anecdotal evidence behind the phenomenon that's so important to me and that essentially forms the basis of my current religious practice.

In advance of more detailed and objective blogging and other analysis that will undoubtedly come from other sources in the coming days, here are some disconnected thoughts of mine (made even more disconnected by the long break I took mid-post; my apologies) on the survey results and how they relate to my experience:

  • The study used the term "emergent communities", a new term as far as I know, as a blanket term to cover all of the different communities that have come into existence in the past decade as part of this independent Judaism phenomenon. They divided these communities into three groups: "independent minyanim", "rabbi-led emergents", and a group they call "alternative emergent communities" but which might as well have been called "other". I'm quite familiar with the first kind, as I frequently attend various independent minyanim in various cities. (I'd tend to group these together as "havurot", but that term was probably avoided since it seems to be a bit of a loaded word as of late.) And the third group is also quite important to me, mainly in the form of JITW, but also in the form of the Boston Moishe House/Kavod Social Justice House, which is the most common "other" group mentioned by survey participants, and of which I consider many members my friends.

    What I didn't know anything about were the "rabbi-led emergents". I'd heard of IKAR in LA, Kehillat Romemu in New York, and a few of the others mentioned, but I've never heard too much about them nor given them much thought. After reading the study, it almost seems like there's an entire universe of independent Jewish communities evolving parallel to but independently of the independent minyanim that I attend. From what I can tell, the people that belong to these communities differ from me in that they're older (more than half are over 40) and are more into yoga. Really, a survey isn't a good way to be introduced to a community. I should probably go check one out if I can.

  • Apparently of the 60% of these communities that are based outside the New York and LA areas, about half are based in "the [other] major Jewish population centers" of Boston, DC, Chicago, San Fran, Atlanta, and South Florida; and the other half are "in areas of smaller Jewish population". What is Philly, chopped liver??? We have the fourth biggest Jewish population in the country! Well, actually, this does bear out my impression that Philly is quite lacking in the independent Jewish scene that it "should" have. Maybe we should do something about that.

  • "By our count, more than 80 functioning communities founded since 1997 are now operating in the United States and Canada. Some others are found in Israel and such places as London, Sydney, Toronto, and Zurich." That's Toronto, Australia, no doubt.

  • There's a quite misleading graph on page 11 of the study:

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    This graph shows how many emergent communities were in existence during each of those years. But remember that emergent communities were defined as communities that came into existence in the past decade. So one would hope to see the increase shown here; it's practically impossible to show anything else this way! There is some useful data in there, but it's hidden in the second derivative. If they'd graphed the number of communities founded in each of those years (and included the intervening years), you'd still see an increase in the number founded per year over much of the time period. But you wouldn't know it from a quick glance at this graph.

    Actually, I'd like to see that communities-per-year graph go back to the 1960's and include some of the original havurot. That would be quite interesting, but I suspect the data just isn't out there for something like that.

  • The study redeems itself quite quickly from that gaffe, as page 15 consists entirely of a really neat looking graph that's quite informative besides:

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    The main gist of the study involves comparing responses between emergent community members and synagogue members to many of the same questions that were asked in the National Jewish Population Survey earlier this decade. This graph shows quite colorfully how the denominational affiliations of members of the various types of communities has shifted (as percentages of the whole, not as individuals) from people's upbringings until now. Not surprisingly, synagogues do a better job in general of keeping movement affiliations than the other groups do; that's only an agenda of affiliated groups. Independent groups don't care.

    More surprisingly, though, is that, among independent minyan attendees, there are 75% as many people who identify as Orthodox as there are people who were raised Orthodox. That "retention rate" is higher than among synagogues! My theory is that most of the independent minyanim are egalitarian, and that most people who prefer non-egalitarian services (but still go to the minyanim) would rather identify as Orthodox than as unaffiliated in order to retain that preference of separated services clear in their movement identification. Other minyan-goers have no such need, and are more likely to call themselves unaffilited.

    Conversely, almost no one in independent minyanim calls themselves Reform, and over 80% of independent minyan goers who were raised Reform don't identify that way anymore. This is striking to me because there's a lot of obvious, and positive, Reform influence in some of the best minyan services I've attended. But I guess the Reform movement just has that bad of a rep that no one wants to identify as pro-organ-music or something.

  • For many of the other questions, the types of communities tend to line up in the same order, with the independent minyan attendees falling on one end, synagogue members on the other, and members of rabbi-led emergent communities in the middle. (The "other" communities are varied enough among themselves that their numbers don't seem too significant to the larger picture.) And, in many cases, the independent minyan end of the continuum is the end that reflects a greater committment to Judaism than the synagogue attendee end. This holds true even for data points that refer more to Jewish community than Jewish practice: independent minyan goers are more likely than any of the other groups to have closer ties to Israel, attend a JCC program, or read a Jewish newspaper. This, coupled with the strong focus of the various independent communities on tikkun olam, will hopefully put to rest any talk of these communities being selfishly focused only on themselves and the present, to the exclusion of the rest of the Jewish community and its future.

  • The gender gap is even more pronounced in these newer communities than in synagogue membership. Fully two-thirds of the people in emergent communities are women.

  • The report really seemed more focused on basic demography. They promise at least two more in-depth reports in the coming months. I can't wait!

ETA: Mah Rabu's analysis is up!

ETA 2: Many of my concerns have been fixed in a revised version.