Monday, December 03, 2007

The results are in

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

This will probably be the first of multiple posts about the Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study (by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar), since everyone has something to say about it. The JTA and Ha’aretz have already run stories summarizing the results, so I’m going to focus on color commentary here. For the play-by-play, I recommend going to the report itself.

The survey organizers have said that this report is just the beginning, and that more detailed analysis will be released later, including data about individual communities. This is good news, because even though this survey provides valuable information about a demographic that has not been studied quantitatively before, the value of lumping Kol Zimrah and Darkhei Noam together into the same pool is still limited. I eagerly await the fuller results, so that we can read about the diversity among independent minyanim, just as we have now had a chance to see how their populations differ from synagogue populations.

I was involved in publicizing the survey, as an organizer (at the time) of Kol Zimrah, and as a blogger on Jewschool and Mah Rabu. We weren’t thrilled with the survey when we first saw it, because a number of the questions reflected frames that are foreign to the communities being studied. This was in part to enable comparison of the results with the National Jewish Population Survey and other previous surveys, and in part simply because the survey authors were operating in those frames. Fortunately, the survey organizers made edits to the survey in response to feedback from concerned communities. The two most significant changes were: 1) The original draft of the survey required respondents to select only one primary community about which to answer the survey. The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the reality of these new communities, in which it is commonplace for people to participate in more than one. The survey organizers graciously added the capability to answer the survey about more than one community, despite the technological hurdles in making this possible, and the results show that this was the right thing to do: 66% of respondents involved with independent minyanim identified themselves as part of 2 or more communities. 2) The original draft had the choices for the movement self-identification question listed “in order”, from “Orthodox” to “Not Jewish”. This presents an obvious bias towards a frame that places all Jewish denominations on a linear spectrum from 1 to Orthodox, a frame that many of these new communities reject. Before the survey went out, the choices were rearranged into a more neutral ordering. Many thanks to the survey organizers for their flexibility! The final version of the survey wasn’t perfect, but is good enough to provide lots of valuable data.

So here we go.

The survey deals with what it calls “emergent sacred communities”, a term borrowed from the emerging church. I’m not going to address whether this term or categorization is accurate or appropriate, but perhaps other Jewschool contributors will.

These communities are divided into three categories: “independent minyanim”, “rabbi-led emergent communities”, and “alternative emergent communities”. As Desh points out, the third category might as well have been called “other”. It includes communities that don’t qualify as independent minyanim because they aren’t independent (because they’re sponsored by a synagogue; note to ZT: there’s a big difference between this and communities that have relationships with synagogues or whose participants once belonged to synagogues) and/or aren’t minyanim (because their primary activity isn’t prayer). I’m very glad to see that the report distinguished between independent minyanim and rabbi-led communities. Media coverage and the Jewish establishment have often conflated these into a single phenomenon, but the structures of the communities are significantly different, and as the survey shows, so are the participants. The report also makes a point of saying that the second category is led by “rabbis functioning as rabbis”. The word rabbi has two meanings — an honorific title signifying a level of educational achievement, and a job description — and when we confuse these meanings, a breakdown in communication ensues. Whether or not a community’s leadership includes the first type of rabbi is of no more significance to the community's definition ("rabbi-led" vs "lay-led", etc.) than whether the sheliach tzibbur has a Ph.D. or an actuarial license. However, it makes a big difference when the community includes a job description of “rabbi”, perhaps especially when the rabbi founded the community (as in many “rabbi-led emergent communities”) rather than being hired by a pre-existing community (as in many conventional synagogues). The report also notes that these three categories “all fall under the more general rubric of ‘emergent Jewish spiritual communities,’ which can also be extended to include conventional synagogues that have been transformed under the leadership of an emergent rabbi, a group that falls outside the purview of this report.” What is an “emergent rabbi”? Is “emergent” (as some have suggested) just a synonym for “cool”?

The introduction to the report heavily cites articles from the Spring 2007 issue of Zeek, which was devoted in part to independent minyanim. Since these articles were only in the print edition and not online, they have been deprived of the additional attention that they would receive from various Jewish online communities, but the footnotes to the report have alerted me to the fact that Mechon Hadar has made some of the articles available online. Perhaps when the dust clears from this survey report, some of those articles will be blogged in greater depth.

There’s a paragraph on page 4 whose content is interesting if you get past the inappropriate frames. It says “An important pattern which appears is one of religious traditionalism and social progressivism”. Unfortunate assumptions in this phrasing include 1) these “social” issues have nothing to do with religious values; 2) ritual practices that converge with “traditional” practices are undertaken for reasons of “traditionalism”. However, the specific examples in the paragraph are enlightening, and underscore the fact that the new independent communities don’t fit into the linear spectrum of “left” to “right” that many people in the establishment (including, apparently, the author of this paragraph) take for granted. The paragraph goes on to refer to “this decoupling of religious and social traditionalism”, but perhaps nothing is being “decoupled” at all — perhaps someone’s strict kashrut practices and his/her stance on the equality of all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation stem from the same religious value system. This paragraph demonstrates its bias more explicitly in the last sentence when it uses the language of “more observant” (a category that is presumed to be well-defined across different groups of Jews, and to exclude “social issues”). But again, if we hold our noses and look at the actual phenomena being described, this describes an important trend that may confound people from another generation (including the people in the Conservative movement who really thought that the people advocating LGBT equality are less fill-in-the-blank).

Page 5 says “From another quarter, former members of the chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s, will no doubt seek and perceive parallels with their own endeavors a generation and more ago. At the same time, leaders of emergent communities are just as likely to see and emphasize that which differentiates current efforts at Jewish spiritual community‐building from those that their parents’ generation initiated.” I’d be the first to point out that there are differences between the grassroots efforts of the 1960s and ’70s and those of today; I’m conscious of these differences all the time as a National Havurah Committee board member. But the fact that I’m in that position highlights that the first sentence in this paragraph is inaccurate and unnecessarily nasty. “Former members”? Certainly there are people who were involved in the chavurah movement a generation ago and have moved on, some of them to influential places in the Jewish establishment. (I hear that another Jewschool contributor is working on a “Where are they now?” feature.) But, as I wrote last week in connection with the New York Times article, “the chavurah movement” is not a thing of the past. Many of the chavurot founded in the ’60s and ’70s still exist, so these “former members” are in fact current members of those communities. The National Havurah Committee still exists, and (as the JTA has reported) has become a hub for networking among some of the new “independent minyanim”. So it’s not just the aging hippies who are seeing a fundamental similarity (despite the differences) between the new communities and the older ones; it’s the participants in the new “independent minyanim” themselves. I would go so far as to suggest that the “independent minyanim” in the study have more in common with the first-wave chavurot than with the “rabbi-led emergent communities” in the study.

Page 8 has a list of the 15 communities with the largest number of respondents in the survey. I’d be interested to know whether this is the total number of people who put each community down on their survey, or just the number who marked it as their “primary community”. Four communities on the list are in New York City, and there is overlap between all of them. (Four, not five. The Washington Square Minyan is actually in this Washington Square, not this one. Except that I heard that it’s not in that one either. I’ll let the Boston locals sort it out.) There’s no difference for the purposes of this preliminary report, but this will become relevant for future analyses that look at individual communities. I think it makes the most sense not to restrict it to people who identified something as their primary community, since that’s somewhat arbitrary. For instance, if someone goes to Hadar every time it meets (2-3 Saturdays a month) and to Kol Zimrah every time it meets (1 Friday a month), which do they identify as their primary community? It probably depends on who their social network is, and who they associate with outside of those 1-3 times a month, but they might in fact be fully involved in both communities.

Another interesting thing about this chart, noted on page 9, is that “[t]he only countable number of participants, and a very crude approximation of participant numbers, is found in the number of entries on these communities’ e‐mail lists.” (I’d be interested in seeing statistics on how many of the communities do and don’t have a formal category of “membership”.) Page 10 says that it is “impossible, at this point, to make an accurate estimate of the total number of people encompassed by these dozens of communities”, since many people who participate in the communities never join the email lists, and conversely, many people are on the email lists even though they don’t participate or don’t even live in the same city. (I make a point of being on the email list of every independent minyan in NYC (where I don’t even live this year, but I’ll be back there soon enough) and several in other cities too. As a result, I’m on the email lists of at least 15 independent Jewish communities. I wonder how much I singlehandedly skew the data. So it’s a good thing they didn’t try to draw any conclusions from these numbers!)

As Desh points out, the graph on page 11 (showing the number of “emergent communities” that existed in each year) is misleading — if “emergent communities” are defined as communities founded in 1996 or later, then of course the number is going to shoot up after 1996! Certainly independent Jewish communities have multiplied since 1996, but not by the factor that this graph suggests. It would be interesting to see such a graph going back to the ’60s, though I’m sure it would be much harder to gather that sort of data, in part because of all the communities that have ceased operation. (Side note: the JTA article uses the verb “fail” to describe such a cessation of operations. I think that verb represents an institutional mentality that is not shared by these grassroots communities. These communities aren’t trying to build something that will last forever; they’re trying to build something to meet a need at a particular time. Kol hakavod to those communities that have had the flexibility to shut down when it was time, rather than keeping things going longer than they should have. Cf. the recent discussion about Jews In The Woods. Were the Jewish communities of Sura and Pumbedita “failures”?) Desh says “There is some useful data in there, but it’s hidden in the second derivative.” I wouldn’t go quite that far - I think the first derivative is also useful, showing a steady growth in these communities by whatever definition.

If we look at the second derivative, we can see that the tipping point is right after 2001. My Urban Kvetch insinuates, and a December 2004 article in the Jewish Week says explicitly, that this is due to an interest in spirituality following 9/11. I disagree. The founding of Kehilat Hadar (in New York) and the teshuva that led to the founding of Shira Hadasha (in Jerusalem, thus not included in the survey, but relevant because of the many American communities patterned after it) were both in spring 2001, back when the Empire State Building was still just the third-tallest building in NYC. Both of these communities are perceived as flagships in their particular subgenres of minyanim, and though many of the factors for this explosion in new communities were already in place, the influence of these specific communities as successful proofs-of-concept lowered the barriers to the creation of other independent communities. This process was already chugging along before 9/11.

Page 12-13 shows that women outnumber men by 2 to 1 in the new communities, compared to nearly 50-50 in conventional congregations. An explanation for the latter is that synagogues are made up largely of heterosexual couples (which are 50-50 by definition) and children (50-50 because they have no choice about whether to be members, so they’re randomized). Since independent communities have large numbers of unattached individuals, this explains why their ratios don’t have the same reasons for being 50-50, and could potentially be anything. However, I haven’t yet seen a satisfactory explanation of why they are skewed so much in this particular direction (a trend that has already been noted anecdotally). Any thoughts?

Page 13-14 shows the demographics that we all know: independent minyanim have more young adults and unmarried people than synagogues.

The title of the chart on page 15 (”Shifts in Denominational Affiliation”) is highly misleading. The survey question asked “Regarding Jewish religious denominations, in which of the following were you raised, and what do you consider yourself now?”. The first question is indeed asking about denominational affiliation, but the second is asking about self-identification. Insofar as people affiliate only with these “emergent communities”, their current denominational affiliation is… nothing at all! The heading on page 16 (”very few are Reform”) is similarly misleading — what does “are” really mean?

Now let’s look at the data. As the report points out on page 14, the breakdown of what denominations independent minyan participants grew up in is essentially the same as the breakdown for synagogue members in the NJPS. Unsurprisingly, among all the groups of “emergent communities”, there is a massive shift away from denominational self-identification and toward identification as “other Jewish”. A surprising result is that, among independent minyan participants, Reform self-identification drops from 18% raised to 3% current, with a much smaller drop in Conservative self-identification. I disagree with the report’s suggestion (p. 17) that there is a “basic incompatibility between Reform identity and emergent participants’ Jewish identity”. I would argue that many independent communities actualize the Reform movement’s professed ideals of informed autonomy much more effectively than do most Reform-affiliated congregations. The problem is that the “Reform” label has been affixed to a particular set of styles which are strongly associated with top-down synagogue worship and thus in opposition to what grassroots communities do, rather than to an aspiration that can be realized in a fully informed and participatory community. And as I have written before, the leaders of the Reform movement are complicit in this.

Suppose someone grows up in the Conservative movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Conservative-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Conservative movement is that this independent minyan is really Conservative deep down and why won’t they admit it, thus s/he is still living a Conservative Jewish life, just in a different framework. (This view about independent minyanim, which has been stated by Conservative leaders in various public forums, is inaccurate for a number of reasons, including 1) Conservative Jewish identity is tied to institutions, with which these minyanim are not affiliated, 2) this ignores the many other participants in the minyanim who have different perspectives and are there for different reasons, etc. etc., but that’s not relevant here; what is relevant is that these people can see that, justifiably or not, the Conservative movement is leaving the light on for them.) In contrast, suppose someone else grows up in the Reform movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Reform-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Reform movement is that s/he has left the fold. I mean, the whole service is in Hebrew, for crying out loud! Many in the Reform movement would see independent minyanim as something thoroughly alien to Reform, rather than as a vision of what Reform communities could look like if their participants were more informed and autonomous. So it’s no wonder that the independent minyan participants start to see their own Jewish identity as something other than Reform. I hope that Reform leaders are looking carefully at this survey and thinking about its consequences.

The data on p. 19 shows that independent minyan participants attend services more often than synagogue members. But this may actually be understated, due to a problematic question. The report shows how many people attend services more than once a month, and how many people attend services in their community more than once a month. The problem: some of these communities only meet once a month! So a respondent might attend a particular minyan every single time it meets and still be placed in the “no” category for this question. When the detailed analysis comes out with information about specific communities, I hope that the frequency of the communities’ services is taken into account when analyzing the frequency of participants’ attendance.

Page 21 shows data about Jewish educational background. Discussions of independent minyanim in the press and elsewhere often emphasize day school backgrounds, but I must say that this doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Yes, independent minyan participants attended day school at higher rates than synagogue members, but the same is true for all of the other educational contexts in the survey. The data shows that 40% of independent minyan participants attended Jewish day school for elementary school and 29% for high school, which, last I checked, is still a minority. In contrast, significant majorities participated in Jewish youth groups, Jewish camps, and Hillel or other college organizations, compared with minorities of synagogue members for all of these, so it would seem that these have had a greater impact on independent minyanim and their participants. I’ll freely admit that my skepticism about the day school claims is motivated by a pro-public-school agenda, and I ask that anyone analyzing the data with a pro-day-school agenda admit that as well.

Also in the chart on p.21, with analysis on p.22, there is discussion about those who have “participated on a program in Israel lasting four months or more”. That’s not what the survey asks at all. The actual question was “Since graduating high school, have you spent 4 months or more at one time in Israel?”, and doesn’t say anything about a program. I write this as someone who answered “yes” to this question, but would have said “no” if it had asked about a program. Now anecdotally, based on my experience as a member of the American independent minyan demographic living temporarily in Israel, I would conjecture that there wouldn’t be a huge difference between the results of these two questions (that is, when I was in Israel outside of an organized program, I felt like an outlier). But if we’re going to draw conclusions based on anecdotal conjectures, then what’s the point of having a quantitative survey?

I’ll leave the discussion about marriage and dating to someone else.

Page 28 shows that participants in the new communities are less likely than synagogue members to say that they always feel proud about Israel. Given that a far higher number of independent minyan participants have been to Israel (p.22) or plan to visit in the next 3 years (p. 28), I would conclude that this means that they have a more mature relationship with Israel. It’s easy to feel proud of Israel all the time when you’re sitting in the US; it’s much harder when you’re actually there.

I was shocked by the result on p. 30 that independent minyan participants give to UJA-Federation at the same rate as synagogue members. Given that the question was phrased “In 2006, did you or anyone in your household make a financial contribution to a UJA-Federation campaign?”, I wonder if some of this was due to confusion about the question — perhaps some single 20something independent minyan participants saw “household” and reflexively thought of their parents.

Page 34 shows that a relatively small number of people said social justice was a reason for their participating in these communities. We should not infer from this that participants in these communities aren’t interested in social justice, but merely that this isn’t an organizational focus. These communities operate within a more a-la-carte understanding of Jewish community, and don’t attempt to cover all elements of Jewish life. Therefore it’s quite possible that the survey respondents are committed to social justice through other venues, but the survey didn’t ask about this.

So that’s just a first look at the survey results. Despite these minor criticisms (which are offered in a constructive spirit), the survey really is an amazing piece of research, which reaches over 1000 participants in 58 communities in 28 states. Many thanks to the survey organizers (Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain) for all their work in shedding light on an important and growing Jewish meta-community.

There's more to come from other Jewschool contributors in the next few days. What are your thoughts?


  1. A new revision of the report is now available here with some clarifications to the language and the graphics. They are:

    Graphic changes

    1. Breakdown of Types of Communities chart now has clearer labeling, and includes number of communities in each category as well as percentages - page 9

    1. Growth of Number of Emergent Spritual Communities, 1996-2007 has updated data and is now color-coded to indicate founding/disbanding dates page - 11

    2. Shifts in Denominational Identification donut charts now have a legend that indicates that inner is raised and outer is current - page 15

    3. Jewish education chart has clearer label about time spent in Israel - page 21

    Text changes

    1. Toronto is deleted from list of cities on page 1

    2. "Former chavurah members" is now just "chavurah members" on page 5

    3. Washington Sq minyan is now located in Brookline, MA on page 8

    4. The discussion of time spent in Israel is clarified in a number of ways on page 22

    5. Steven M. Cohen's name is now formatted correctly in the references (last, first) on page 41

    6. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's bio has a period on page 43

    7. There is a note that this a revised version on page 43

  2. well BZ, it seems your comments have made a difference.

  3. This is really interesting. Thanks for doing so much of the legwork.