Only Minority of Jews Belong to a Synagogue, Study Shows

Only a minority of American Jews belong to a synagogue, one of the most central institutions in Jewish life, according to a new study of synagogue affiliation.

And that minority of 39 percent who said they currently belong is actually likely to be much smaller in reality, according to the study’s authors. They say that people who attend services may say they are synagogue members although they do not pay dues.

The analysis, by Gary Tobin and Gabriel Berger of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, is named “Synagogue Affiliation: Implications for the 1990s.” It is based on data gathered from almost 2,500 house-holds around the country as part of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations.

The study reveals that just one-quarter of American Jews reported attending services at least once a month.

One-third said they go on the High Holy Days or a few times a year, while another 23 percent go to synagogue just on special occasions related to rites of passage, like a wedding.

These figures mean that Jews are among the most “un-churched” of Americans, according to the study. Polls of Christian Americans have shown that about 40 percent of respondents say they go to church at least once a month.

Tobin, director of the Cohen Center, said that studies in communities comparing survey responses to questions about membership with actual synagogue membership rosters have shown that twice as many Jews say they are synagogue members than really are.

Even 43 percent of Jews who consider being Jewish to be very important in their lives say they are not currently affiliated.

Yet synagogue membership and attendance are key indicators of, and an essential gateway into, other aspects of Jewish identity.

Jews who are synagogue members are markedly more likely to participate actively in other spheres of Jewish life, according to the study.

Synagogue members are more likely to volunteer for Jewish organizations and more likely to give generously to Jewish and non-Jewish causes than non-members, the survey says.

The percentage of Jews who belong to a synagogue “includes the most activist elements of American Jewish society,” said Tobin.

AFFILIATION LINKED WITH IDENTITY

And, according to the study, synagogue affiliation leads to growth in Jewish identity.

“While participation in organized religion originates as a private matter, it leads progressively to an expanding concern and commitment to the larger community of Jews,” wrote the authors.

The study’s key findings include the fact that Jews ages 25-34 are the least likely to belong to a synagogue; just 27.5 percent of respondents that age said they do.

The age groups with the highest affiliation rate are the youngest and oldest adults; just over 45 percent of Jews 18-24 and 75-and-over currently belong to a synagogue.

Forty-two to 45 percent of Jews between ages 45 and 74 belong.

Synagogue affiliation is at its very highest in families with children ages 10-13 and 14-17 at home — 73 percent of respondents with at least two children in that age range affiliate.

Just under half of respondents with a child age 10 to 13 at home — 49.5 percent — said they belong to a synagogue, despite the widespread notion that families with bar-mitzvah-age children are more likely to belong so that their children will prepare for the life-cycle event.

“A growing number of kids don’t get any Jewish education,” said Tobin. “The notion that it’s universal is just not true, especially among mixed marrieds.”

Contrary to another popular misconception, synagogue affiliation increases as educational levels do.

While 34.5 percent of Jews who have no more than a high school education belong, 36 percent of those with some undergraduate college experience but not a bachelor’s degree belong, and more than 45 percent of Jews with graduate degrees do.

Synagogue affiliation also rises along with income levels.

Just 30.5 percent of respondents with incomes between $30,000 and $40,000 belong, but nearly half the respondents with a household income of over $80,000, 49 percent, affiliate.

Dropout rates are highest among those with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000.

Synagogue affiliation also has a strong correlation to the denomination of the household.

Orthodox Jews are much more likely to belong to a synagogue than Reform Jews — 65 percent as opposed to 40 percent.

Just over half, 52 percent, of Jews who identify themselves as Conservative belong to a synagogue.

Still, more than one-third of Orthodox Jews do not belong to a shul.

And Reform Jews have the highest rate of respondents who describe themselves as “synagogue dropouts” — 38 percent, compared to 10 percent of Orthodox and 29 percent of Conservative Jews.

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