Non-Denominational & Post-Denominational

Beyond the major movements--two tendencies in American Jewry.

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Those we may call the post-denominational, however, represent quite a healthy phenomenon in Jewish life. Their institutions come in several varieties. Some are educational endeavors seeking to attract students beyond what may be regarded as their natural constituency. Thus, Pardes and Hartman Institutes in Jerusalem, or Boston's Hebrew College, consciously transcend denominational labels in their promotion and marketing, even though their leadership and faculty hail from decidedly denominational origins (in the first two instances from Orthodoxy, in the third instance from Conservatism).

Another example is offered by Hadar, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, one of a dozen or more recently established congregations around the world characterized by gender egalitarianism, traditional davening, Hebraic proficiency and eschewal of rabbinic leadership. Led by young-adult graduates of the finest Conservative educational institutions (Schechter schools, Camp Ramah, USY, Nativ), along with a sprinkling of Orthodox-raised and identified compatriots, Hadar intentionally resists a denominational affiliation, in part to remain attractive and acceptable to its Orthodox minority and to its many disaffected Conservative Jews. (One senior Conservative leader referred to Hadar as a "Conservative congregation flying a Liberian flag.") Nearby, we find Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, once-Conservative and now independent of any movement affiliation, in part owing to its liberal stance on homosexuality and other issues.

Internal & External Causes

To what can we attribute the rise of post-denominationalism? As with most Jewish

social phenomena, to find the answers, we need to look both to the larger society

and to an inner Jewish social dynamic.

Over the last decade and more, social scientists of American life have been writing about the decline of long-standing attachments to political parties, commercial brands, and religious denominations. People detach from their families, neighborhoods, countries, jobs, friendship circles, consumer products, political parties, sources of information, and houses of worship with far greater ease and rapidity than they (or their parents) did in the past. The party label with the healthiest growth over the last few decades has been "Independent," at the cost of both the Democratic and Republican labels. In the religious sphere, more than a generation ago, Americans engaged in denominational switching, religious innovation, and the construction of idiosyncratic religious lifestyles that often drew upon several religious traditions. As for the larger society, so for the Jews.

The Influence of Conservative Judaism

With respect to explanations internal to the Jewish world, one factor critical to the growth of the post-denominational category is, quite simply (and quite regrettably), the shrinking appeal of the Conservative Movement, the "grayest" denomination in American Jewry. This is not the place for a balanced, serious and sympathetic discourse on the many reasons for this long-term trend, one that extends at least back to the mid-1950s, when the Conservative affiliation rates were arguably at their peak. However, one phenomenon does deserve special mention here: The Conservative Movement may be victim to its own (partial) success.

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Dr. Steven M Cohen

Dr. Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry, was appointed Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York. Dr. Cohen divides his time between New York and Jerusalem, where he has served as Professor at The Melton Centre for Jewish Education at The Hebrew University since 1992.