The Fastest Growing Jewish Community Segment

Quick, what’s the fastest growing part of the Jewish community, or at least the New York metro area’s Jewish community? Orthodox? They’re growing, but not the fastest? Conservative? Nah. Reform? Not anymore. Reconstructionist? Nope.

According the the recently released study of the NY Jewish community, the group that has doubled it’s share of the community, growing from just 15% to a walloping 37% is [drum roll, please]…


That’s right, “other”. [Source: Jewish Community Study of New York, page 121].

Are you an old school thinker about the Jewish community? Guess what? Over 1/3 of the Jews in New York don’t fit into the categories that you have been using to describe Jews and Judaism. These categories, which were born during the period from the early 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, are in decline. Realistically, the terms “Reform”, “Conservative”, “Orthodox” and “Reconstructionist” never referred to all Jews. They are descriptions of religious Jews. And even at that, they apply mostly to Ashkenazi Jews who have been in North America for more than a generation. The categories always left out a significant chunk of Jewish life (and creativity). According to the New York study, these categories now leave out a full 37% of all Jews!

So, who are these “others” and what should the community do about the trend? According the the study, “other” includes those who describe themselves as:

  • Just Jewish
  • Sephardi
  • Traditional
  • Cultural
  • Secular
  • Not Religious
  • Post-Denominational
  • Trans-denominational

I would also suggest that these other folks might be among the “other”:

  • Israeli born Jews, most of whom have little use for the American denominational labels
  • Jews from families that emigrated from the former Soviet Union (if we still use that term), most of whom have no use for the denominational labels
  • Jews whose connectedness is through social justice or political activism
  • Jews who are still searching for the communities that will most fully accept them (and who are not comfortable with a home in any of the old movements): GLBT Jews, Jews of color
  • Jews who are aboard the Do It Yourself Judaism train. They are individualistic and want to set their own Jewish paths

Admittedly, “other” is not a unified category; it is a hodge podge of my fellow American Jews. I should also admit, in the name of transparency, that I have defined myself as either “just Jewish” or “post-denominational” for at least the past 20 years, meaning that I, too, am “other”.

Yet I can’t help thinking that these is some common thread that might hold many in the “other” category together. A conversation needs to begin, and I’m happy to help start it now:

  1. What does the finding of 37% of Jews falling outside denominational lines mean?
  2. Who (individually or organizationally) is going to support the “others” as they chart their Jewish lives?
  3. Is the distinction between “religiously Jewish” and “culturally Jewish” significant to most Jews today? Or perhaps we all live along a continuum, moving constantly along it? And if that’s so, how do we change the organizations that are only interested in people when their journeys put them, however briefly, in a certain category?

Looking for YOUR comments.


10 responses

  1. Another “just Jewish” gal here, I have found that it’s easier and more appropriate a label than any of the movement-based labels ever were. As for what to do with this news: nothing. I think we “others” don’t need outreach, not would we respond if it were offered. Let us thrive on the outside, as we’ve been doing for years. Or don’t. 🙂 We’ll probably just keep doing what we’ve always done “out here.”


  2. Your questions are excellent! Here are my initial responses, ideas, and additions:

    1) There are people who are identifying themselves as Jewish that our established infrastructure of religious movements, cultural institutions, etc. are not providing something that these people want and/or value.

    2) With coaching becoming popular, perhaps coaching for Jewish journeys will help to fill the niche. I’m also thinking that a lot of these people may be turning to the internet to have their questions answered, find people with whom to relate, to view other Jewish journeys to gain ideas for their own, and so on.

    3) I would add to the construct of “religiously Jewish” and “culturally Jewish” those who define themselves as Jewish as part of their identity…like having it as part of their personal brand identity and/or logo. I don’t think it’s a continuum….rather set of multiple dimensions that probably exist on a radargraph [here’s an example of one: . My guess is that the existing “institutions” may have difficult changing from their existing constructs as inertia take a lot of force/energy to shift. Perhaps this is a time for new “institutions” and/or constructs to emerge….perhaps in a similar fashion to how rabbinic Judaism provided a means of Jews to still be Jews post-Temple.


  3. What do the terms “port-denominational” and “trans-denominational” mean?


  4. Arnie,

    After looking at the study’s findings in depth, the “other” really jumped out at me. I think it is reflective of a new generation of primarily non-Orthodox Jews who don’t feel they have a home in the Reform or Conservative congregation, (whether they were part of it and left, or they were never enticed e.g. Russian born etc.) and when asked said “I’m just Jewish.” That has larger implications for those denominations and their ability to retain a new generation.

    The ultimate question is should we have any institutions charting the “others” lives. Should we invest any resources in the 37%, and to what end? The study seems to indicate that all our work on the periphery has not moved anyone closer to affiliation. I would suggest that we should devote our resources to those connected and work on strengthening their ties to the community. I think this is what Rabbi Jacobs is trying to do with his youth initiative at URJ.

    So you’ll say to me, you’re writing off 37%, and I’ll say we’ve already done that, let’s focus on what’s left and make it vibrant, so we rebuilt the middle that is being swallowed by the fundamentalists on one end and the disenfranchised on the others. Otherwise, in 10 years time, “the other” maybe over 50%.


  5. How about “K’lal Yisrael”. Not as a catch all, but as a positive philosophy of inclusiveness. That’s how I have “labeled” myself for years.


  6. The Notorious R.A.V. | Reply

    Lori…I would say “transdenominational” means someone whose Jewish life may include elements taken from any number of Jewish denominations or movements. Post-denominational, to me, is one who believes that the era in which we can define Jews by the current denominational tags is over.


  7. The article makes a very imporatnt point.
    The question is, what benefit is there in such informtion?
    For Halachic purposes, all that matters is whether the Mother was Jewish, regardless of how they affiliate. From a community point of view, they have already disassociated themselves. They are not seeking the Jewish culture nor education. They don’t want outreach to reach out to them.
    If you want to gauge the community growth, you need to find out how they affiliated in the past.
    From a business perspective you need to find out what they are. Who their influencers and role models are.
    I explain the same concerning all inadequate labels, such as Secular and Chareidi. They are all far too broadly defined, telling us what they are not and not leaving one with any real workable insight.
    The article tells us that we need to go back to them and ask them to define a label that does describe them and in which direction they are going.


    1. Just because a person doesn’t consider themselves a part of a movement does not mean they are dissociating themselves from a Jewish community.

      Consider what Jewish movements provide: Rabbinic training, synagogues, day schools, camps, and a few miscellaneous other things.

      Consider who these offerings are not serving: Young adults, empty-nesters, couples without children.

      These people have no reason to consider themselves part of one of these movements as they receive no services from these movements.

      There are plenty of programs who acknowledge this reality and provide opportunities for learning, meaning, and community to those who are in this ‘Other’ category including Moishe House, Next Dor, Birthright Israel, and others.

      Movements, and synagogues in particular, would be better served by creating more value for those who do affiliate (families post-b’nai mitzvah, in particular) in order to shore up support.


  8. I was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1947 of Jewish parents, so therefore I am a Jew by default,Baruch Hashem.When Iwas groing up I did not know of anything other than Orthodox. I attended the Great Central Synagogue, we had a Kosher home andit neveroccured to me to every to be anything but. I married a Jewish girl also from Glasgow and TG we are still happily married and havetwo sonswho also married Jewish girls and now we, thank G-d, have5 wonder full grandchildren. Some times I wish that everyonewas a ‘Glasgow Jew’ and we wouldn’tbe having branding conversations over flavours of Judiasm. In recent years I have discoveredthe concept of Emuna; where I have faith in THE ONE, and fear no one; where everything, not almost everything comes form Hashem; Everything, not almost everyting has a purpose, and is for the best. When youget this concept you can start making better decisions and choices, not influenced by belief, but goverened by absolute faith; Emuna!


  9. I need a box called “it’s complicated”–like FB has for relationships! It’s tricky for me, as a Conservative (JTS) ordained rabbi, to check the “other” box. But I have been doing just that for the last 8 of my 19 years in the rabbinate. I would define myself as all of the above: post/trans denominational, DIY, just Jewish & “k’lal yisrael,” and I’ve been defined as “rabbi to the Episcopalians” on several occasions. Waiting for the organized American-Jewish world to catch up with the “others.”


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