As we experience an unprecedented global pandemic, more Jews than at any other time in history are being exposed to Jewish platforms of culture, religious practice and education. According to several reports, COVID-19’s forced digital emphasis has generated a rebirth in Jewish spirituality, learning and religious engagement.
In many ways, American Judaism is undergoing a structural revolution. I am convinced that “Virtual Judaism” will emerge as a central feature in the twenty-first-century model of practice and participation. But the revolution extends beyond the pandemic, as synagogues, communal institutions, and national organizations all pivot in response to this pandemic and in reaction to the social and financial forces that were already in play before 2020.
Jews should not fear these changes; in fact, they are a reminder that our communal story has been an evolving experiment, as we have continuously accommodated to the cultural and economic trends that have defined and shaped our society. Throughout our American Jewish journey, Jews have witnessed a series of operational “revolutions.”
The Jewish Experiment
The first American Jewish Revolution occurred from 1880 to 1920, as a response to the great influx of Eastern European Jews. This rapid demographic change created the need for institutions that would help immigrants to accommodate the social and economic demands of being Americans. Religious denominations and the federation system of social services were the solutions. This federation and denomination model dominated the Jewish landscape until the mid-1980s, although many of these organizations continue to serve as the core institutions of American Jewish life.
The second American Jewish Revolution occurred from 1985 to 2005, in response to the changing status of Jews in America. The Jewish community had witnessed a rise in communal and family organizations, a new generation of activism, and alternative models of religious and social engagement.
Guided by the purpose to transform American Jews into Jewish Americans, whose Judaism informed and framed their national identity, leaders launched hundreds of organizations that offered single-issue constituencies and innovative approaches to learning, activism and spirituality. Such organizations included the American Jewish World Service, Mazon: the Jewish Response to Hunger, J Street, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Moishe House and Jewish World Watch. Each provided a distinctive agenda, served a defined population and generated targeted outcomes.
As these first two revolutions demonstrated, most institutional change occurs in response to the populace’s needs, tastes and trends. And, as the Jewish community’s needs began to change in 2008, a third revolution appeared on the horizon.
The Third Jewish Revolution
Around 2008, the Jewish community witnessed two emerging trends that would distinctly alter existing forms of practice. The first was the rise of the “Just Jewish” population (nearly one-third of young Jews), individuals who resist denominational Judaism and other forms of organized Jewish life. The second trend was the high rate of intermarriage.
To many in this new generation, Judaism has become a choice, no longer a requirement or obligation. Witness, for instance, a 2010 Pew study, where only 15% of surveyed millennials said that “living a very religious life is one of their most important goals,” but “a quarter (26%) say this is not important to them.” A 2020 study of Jewish millennials by Hakhel found that “only 30 percent of respondents said they had any interest in joining a synagogue, and only 7.5 percent were interested in the work of Jewish federations and community centers.”
These younger generations present an existential challenge to existing Jewish institutions. Millennials and Gen-Zers, for instance, prefer to selectively connect with Judaism around a specific cause or interest area, such as social justice, the environment, culture or the arts. They are, as a result, uncomfortable with the idea of memberships and dues structures — the very basis of synagogues, federations and schools. It is no coincidence that as this demographic has grown, synagogue affiliation has declined and further downsizing, mergers and closures have occurred.
Younger generations present an existential challenge to existing Jewish institutions.
One effect of this emphasis away from the synagogue is the rise of privatized Judaism, where more Jews are dropping membership and instead are enlisting Jewish professionals to perform private family life cycle events. These personalized versions of practice point to a growing pattern of individualized Jewish engagement outside of the synagogue.
Another result of this decentralization is the growth of online Jewish resources, programs and speakers, which allow younger generations, among others, to access an array of content never before accessible. The number of virtual publications, educational, religious and cultural websites and study materials attests to this expansion of Jewish learning and connectivity outside of the synagogue.
The pandemic has only accelerated this digital, decentralized Judaism, just as it has challenged and upended the financial and structural viability of many of our institutions. 2020 proves that the third revolution is here to stay.
Adapting to the Times
In an effort to adapt to this revolution, many Jews have sought to identify what ideologies are driving younger generations’ needs. One study by Stanford University, for example, argues that “The millennial generation is on the leading edge of changes in racial and gender identities.” This finding carries immense implications for Jewish organizations, as younger Jews consciously distinguish who they are and how they want to affiliate by employing racial, cultural, and gender identity terms to demarcate their personal and group stories.
But other factors contribute to the particular features of this new Jewish generation. As several studies have illustrated, younger Jews tend to be urban-based, leaving them at times disconnected from the Jewish suburban institutions of their youth. This generation binds together their personal and work behaviors, as they seek meaning and congruence in all aspects of their lives. Health consciousness represents another generational indicator, as we find younger Jews experimenting with different forms and definitions of Kashrut.
Guidelines for the Third Revolution
In addition to conducting research, the American Jewish establishment is actively seeking to construct strategies and programs designed to be responsive to these emerging needs. The Jewish Federations of North America, along with other communal and religious entities, are developing guidelines for addressing this new audience, such as:
- Know the audience. Target programs. Design initiatives for specific niche audiences within the larger younger adult market.
- Help younger adults build Jewish life for themselves with support and resources that we provide to them.
- Make place matter. Intertwine the culture and initiatives of a larger NextGen project in the narrative of the community.
- Emphasize blended identity. Engage and educate. Content can be engaging.
- Be memorable. Work with excellence. Rise above the noise and competition by being outstanding.
These guidelines are not unique to the federations, as other communal institutions have moved to create similar millennial operating protocols when assisting member agencies and synagogue affiliates.
Being attentive to the revolution, however, does not ensure success. Some institutions may be able to evolve, but others may fade away. Yet these developments represent a natural progression of how institutions perform and how communities grow and change. The American Jewish experiment continues.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. In future pieces, he will explore reforms that can help organizations manage the structural and programmatic changes essential for the pandemic revolution.