Jewish Pittsburgh Growing but Denominational Affiliation Dropping

Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

By Toby Tabachnick

Although its synagogue affiliation has dramatically declined since 2002, the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community nonetheless has grown by 17 percent. According to the latest tally, it includes 49,200 Jews living in 26,800 households.

While the center of the community remains in Squirrel Hill, with 26 percent of Jews living there and in Shadyside, Jewish Pittsburgh is also expanding geographically, with 31 percent in the rest of the city of Pittsburgh, 20 percent in the South Hills, 9 percent in the North Hills and the remaining 14 percent distributed through the rest of the five- county area, which includes all of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland Counties.

These are some of the findings of the newly released 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. It was conducted by the Marilyn and Maurice Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

The $325,000 study, funded by the Jewish Community Foundation, delivers a portrait of Jewish Pittsburgh that reveals an educated, growing population that is highly connected to Israel, but nevertheless reflecting national trends in terms of declining congregational engagement. The last such study was conducted in 2002.

The research included interviews with approximately 2,100 Jewish households throughout Greater Pittsburgh.

Previous studies of the local Jewish community show that its size has been “relatively stable, with a slight overall decline over the past 80 years,” according to the new report.

The 1938 study estimated that there were 54,000 Jews in Pittsburgh, but between 1938 and 1963, that number fell to 45,000. The 1984 study showed 44,906 Jews in the Steel City, while the 2002 study estimated the Jewish population at 42,200.

But since 2002, “our Jewish community has grown,” said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation. “We should feel great about that.”

The growth in numbers is accompanied by a shift in age demographics. The largest shares of the population are adults aged 18-29 and 60-69, with fewer adults in their 30s and 40s than there were in 2002, and fewer children.

Because nearly 40 percent of Jewish children in the community are younger than 5 years old, and because newcomers to the community seem to be replacing those who move away, growth in the community is likely to continue, according to the study.

“There are a lot of young people here, which presents a really exciting opportunity for us to think about how to engage them all in Jewish life,” Finkelstein said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald noted that the increase in Jewish young adults in Pittsburgh reflects a trend in the broader Steel City community.

“This is something we’re excited about,” Fitzgerald said. “This study indicates we’re getting younger, that young parents are moving here and staying here.”

The study revealed changes since 2002 in terms of organizational affiliation, reflecting national trends. Graphic courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

The study also revealed changes since 2002 in terms of organizational affiliation, reflecting national trends. Only 35 percent of Jewish households in Greater Pittsburgh belong to a synagogue or other Jewish worship community, declining by 53 percent in the last 15 years.

Matt Boxer, an assistant research professor at CMJS who worked on the study, said it reveals little information that was unexpected.

The decline in synagogue affiliation in Pittsburgh, he said, is not surprising, noting that “people joining or attending chavurot-style minyanim or Chabad has contributed to the decline of the brick and mortar synagogue model.”

The number of people identifying as Orthodox in Pittsburgh has increased slightly, from 7 percent to 9 percent, but it is the only denomination that has grown in the last 15 years.

The study shows that the proportion of Pittsburgh Jews who identify either as Reform or Conservative has declined since 2014 from 73 percent to 56 percent. The proportion of Jews in Pittsburgh who claim no denomination has increased from 17 percent to 30 percent of the population.

“I think we as a community have to look at the changes in denominational affiliation that the study shows,” Finkelstein said. “I think it’s really important for members of the community and different organizations to not be defensive when they see this study, but to try to own the data and grapple with it to make sure each organization is achieving its mission.”

While synagogue affiliation in Pittsburgh has dropped to one-third of area Jews, the Steel City is doing better on that front than other communities, according to Leonard Saxe, director of the CMJS. Washington, D.C.’s Jewish community, which just completed a similar study, has a 25 percent affiliation rate.

“There are multiple ways to be Jewish today,” Saxe said. “It’s not just going to synagogue,” but includes participating in a variety of other organizations and Jewish cultural opportunities.

“The different patterns we identified will help to figure out how to enhance and serve the Jewish community.”

Saxe added that according to the study, 30 percent of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population is engaged “in many aspects” of being Jewish, even though they do not “necessarily go to synagogue every week.”

The study revealed a lot of positive data, Finkelstein noted, pointing to the “penetration rate” in terms of Jewish education. Overall, 52 percent of Jewish children in grades K-12 participated in at least one Jewish educational program in the past year.

“There is more that we can do, but that is pretty good,” Finkelstein said.

According to the latest tally, the Pittsburgh Jewish community includes 49,200 Jews living in 26,800 households. Graphic courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“The biggest take away from the study is opportunity,” said Evan Indianer, the study’s chair. It will allow community organizations to make “smart, data-driven decisions.

“We have limited resources in the community, and we have to figure out how to most effectively use them,” Indianer continued. “The data will be looked upon in different ways and will inform us as to the different questions to keep asking.”

One statistic that Indianer found encouraging is that 76 percent of children being raised in Jewish households in Pittsburgh are being raised Jewish in some way. While intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox continue to rise nationally, Indianer sees Pittsburgh’s rate of raising children Jewish as “encouraging.”

But among intermarried families, the study shows, only 33 percent of children are being raised exclusively Jewish. Moreover, few intermarried families in the Pittsburgh community “feel very much a part of the local Jewish community, but these families have over one-third of all children in Jewish households in the area,” the report states.

Nonetheless, for intermarried families who are raising their children Jewish in some way, “nearly as many are sending their children to Jewish preschool as are inmarried families.”

Reaching out to intermarried families may provide a good opportunity for growth, Boxer said, and Pittsburgh should see “what else can be done to make them feel welcome.”

Indianer hopes the study provides an opportunity for community leaders to “embrace reality, which can catapult conversation to a new level, and bring action, rather than being paralyzing, providing insight as to our weaknesses so we can stay at the top of our game.”

One surprising piece of data revealed by the study is that 59 percent of Jewish Pittsburghers have visited or lived in Israel, observed Raimy Rubin, a Federation employee who staffed the study.

“For Jewish connection to Israel, our numbers are higher than nationally,” he said.

Young Jewish adults in Pittsburgh are also more engaged Jewishly than that demographic is on a national level, Rubin added.

“They defy the stereotypes,” said Boxer. “The young adults in our survey look like the [Pittsburgh Jewish] community as a whole. They join organizations, but they may be different organizations, or slightly different kinds of programs.”

Graphic courtesy of Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

The study shows that the Pittsburgh Jewish community is mostly middle class. One-third of Pittsburgh-area Jews describe themselves as prosperous or living very comfortably, and another 45 percent say they are living reasonably comfortably.

But 15 percent say they are just getting along, and 8 percent describe themselves as poor or nearly poor. One-quarter of Jewish households lack sufficient savings to cover three months of expenses, and 13 percent say they could not cover an emergency $400 expense with cash, money currently in a bank account, or on a credit card they could pay in full.

“Although the community as a whole is comfortably middle class, there is a substantial proportion facing economic pressures,” Boxer stressed. “About one-quarter of Jewish households say they’re just getting along, nearly poor, or poor, and the proportion on the lower end of the scale is highest in the outlying areas of the region farthest away from the resources the Jewish community has available to help.”

The study is a “planning tool,” Finkelstein surmised, saying that he hopes will be utilized by the community to see “what we’re doing well – and do more of that – and what we’re not doing well.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” he added. “Shame on us if we don’t use it to look at the trends and make sure we’re addressing the needs of our Jewish people.”

This story origiunally appeared in The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle; reprinted with permission.

The complete study is available for download.