The New American Jew

August 15, 2018

The Jewish community is undergoing a fundamental revolution, resulting in the emergence of a new kind of American Jew. 

The traditional 20th century communal system was constructed around the centrality of a federation-synagogue partnership. Today, we find an emergent 21st-century framework reflective of the rise of boutique organizations and alternative expressions of Jewish participation. The peer-networked leadership model, a central attribute of the last century, has given way to a framework of self-selected, empowered leaders.

The transition from power-centered organizations to knowledge- and skill-based institutions serves to define these new contemporary structures. The current focus, for example, on single-issue constituencies is replacing the multipurpose institutions that dominated the post-World War II era. If the traditional communal agenda was centered on such priorities as Israel, the Holocaust and Soviet Jewry, then the postmodern agenda is directed toward individual Jewish engagement and alternative expressions of identity.

In an age when Jewish peoplehood is under assault, will these new expressions of Jewish culture and practice reinvigorate Jewish collective expressions or further weaken the connective bonds that once defined us as a civilization?

Beyond Community
Many external factors are influencing our individual behavior and social culture, subsequently restructuring how we understand and relate to the idea of community:

The changing nature of work is being fueled by significant economic shifts tied to globalization, the emergence of new technologies and the communications revolution. These changes also have contributed to the acceleration of income disparity between the very wealthy and most of the American workforce. 

The communications revolution is fundamentally restructuring how people and institutions operate and interact. The array of social media instruments is accelerating the flow and increasing the amount of information being exchanged.

The millennial generation is recasting institutional engagement and loyalty. Traditional societal notions of membership, affiliation and community are changing with the introduction of alternative forms of participation in society. Sociologists are seeing resulting shifts in the creation of cultural identity and expressions of social connectivity that require a rethinking of the importance of distinctive generational characteristics and behaviors.

The loss of trust in leaders and institutions is profoundly altering the social landscape. With membership in traditional organizations declining, the lines of connection between people are being radically altered. Few leaders wield influence and standing among their followers as they once did, leading to new constructs of influence, power and authority.

The ability to acquire and apply knowledge in this information age is rapidly and profoundly restructuring our economy, politics and social relationships. We are witnessing the rise of a knowledge-based culture that operates differently from the industrial, physical-labor model we have known for generations. Those with access to particular types of information and who are skilled at its application and dissemination have considerable power in shaping social ideas.

The role of liberal religion is declining in American society at large and within the Jewish community in particular. The historic power and presence of religion within our society is giving way to other competing social structures and causes. Where once religious fidelity was seen as central to American social identity, today 42 percent of Americans report that they have changed their religious affiliation, with many labeling their current status as “religious none” (holding no religion)!

These six elements help to shape some of the characteristics, behaviors and practices contributing to 21st-century Jewish life.

As these rapid and significant changes take place, a number of factors are contributing to a different set of behaviors defining the “new,” 21st-century American Jew:

  • Lower synagogue affiliation patterns with the emergence of alternative religious expressions
  • A drop-off in membership and support of key, legacy Jewish institutions and the selective engagement with Jewish boutique or startup models
  • Major transitions in Jewish giving patterns, as evidenced by increased directed giving to causes inside and outside of the community
  • A profound growth in Jewish social media messaging as well as the rise of alternative and “virtual” Jewish communities
  • A series of social and cultural divisions that involve fourth- and fifth-generation American Jews whose ideas, values and practices are in tension with the newer Jewish Americans, including Russians, Iranians and Israelis
  • The political and religious divide between Israel and the Diaspora is contributing to American Jewry’s changing behaviors, attitudes and priorities
  • American-Jewish Orthodoxy’s growth in demographic, political and religious influence is contributing to a shifting balance of power within the community
  • Multiple and competing Jewish identities — as symbolized by the rise of the “sovereign self,” the privatizing of the Jewish experience and the changing character of Jewish lifestyles — is profoundly impacting Jewish institutional practices.

The New Jewish Cultural Model
Market forces are contributing to new patterns of Jewish identity and expression.

Consumer dominance: Where institutions once set the standard of practice, today individuals are driving the market. This phenomenon is predominantly reshaping not only how the communal system operates but has impacted the Jewish “product” line of services and resources. The Jewish consumer today is shaping the marketplace, reflecting a similar pattern within the general culture.

Social networking: Today, virtual communications have replaced traditional modes of engagement. This technological revolution is altering not only individual behaviors but also how institutions access and engage their constituencies. A new Jewish ecology of websites, organizations and movements has emerged in response to the changing generational landscape.

Privatized Judaism: We are amid a revolutionary transition as services, programs and resources are being privatized. A growing portion of the Jewish enterprise will no longer be provided by communal institutions but through a privatized set of offerings. The “selling” of modern Judaism may represent the single most significant factor in shaping the new Jewish culture and its economy.

From one, many: Where we once accepted a narrow set of institutional options, today we can choose from an expanding array of organizational resources offered by new institutions and online services. This explosion of choices permits individuals the opportunity to build a personalized Jewish connection, and it has contributed to making the new Jewish culture more robust and diversified in such arenas as Israel, arts and culture, social justice and religious expression.

Emergence of a Jewish aristocratic class: With the overall concentration of wealth and the corresponding emergence of family and community foundations designed to manage expanding philanthropic resources, we are seeing a disproportionate amount of funding being generated from a relatively small donor base within the Jewish community. A new aristocratic class is continuing to provide support to traditional institutions while also investing in startups. The dramatic shift from “umbrella” funding to targeted giving has been the financial engine driving this new Jewish cultural paradigm.

Shifting from centralized governance to local management: One of the core elements of the new, civic Jewish culture is the decline of centralized systems of communal decision-making and shared governance, as the federated and religious systems have ceded power to newly created boutique institutions. The consensus-based agenda that once promoted a broad array of competing priorities within Jewish life has eroded, replaced by a fundamental repositioning of social concerns that has led to the evolution of a decentralized community model. Where once communal power and authority were concentrated in particular institutions and among an interconnected leadership elite, today such power is dispersed.

End of ideology: If the last century was identified as a period of Jewish ideological engagement marked by distinctive political causes and religious camps, then the current environment would suggest we are in an era in which attachments to core beliefs are being set aside in favor of pragmatic choice. Jews are now positioned along a spectrum of social movements, in some cases giving up traditional labels and loyalties.

From visionary leadership to institutional maintenance: As with the demise of ideology, “leaders” have opted to rein in their institutional visioning in favor of organizational “maintenance.” Within this new cultural framework, there has been a major redefinition of institutional practice, in which many organizations are moving toward an emphasis on donor services and personal, selective engagement. In seeking to be “in relationship” with their key stakeholders, and fearful of losing their critical membership base, these organizations are at times sacrificing mission and vision as a means of preserving these core connections.

Closures, mergers and consolidations: Just as there has been expansion, there is a corollary response resulting in the closure of certain legacy organizations. As one of the primary outcomes of this shift, we are experiencing a major recalibration of our institutional system as reflected by downsizing, mergers and, in some instances, the closing of organizations and synagogues.

Culture of experimentation: In light of the significant demographic, social and cultural changes underway within the community, institutions have redirected their resources to capture “the new and innovative” as a way to maintain members, attract donors and build their “brand.” This focus on experimentation represents a significant shift, with organizational priorities now centered on three core elements: survival and sustainability, generational exposure and social appeal.

Culture of free: We are witness to new models of affiliation and engagement as membership rosters decline and donor participation diminishes. A new and different social environment promotes a “culture of free.” As organizations replace traditional norms of associational participation, we can identify several innovative patterns of engagement that institutions are using to market their services in fundamentally different ways. A shift from formal affiliation or membership to fee-for-service arrangements is now underway. Communities are bundling membership packages that allow families and singles to buy, through a single purchase plan, access to several institutions. A part of this focus on “free” represents a countercultural response to the high cost of Jewish living that has been emblematic of communal life for several decades.

Closing Thoughts
We are witnessing the remaking of the American Jew, shaped by both the global forces of change and by the imprint of a new communal paradigm. How Jews understand who they are and what it means to be Jewish are questions being asked in response to these new developments. As the “New American Jew” emerges, they will hold different ideas and beliefs about the place that Judaism and the Jewish experience inhabit within their worldview.

We are witnessing the presence of multiple Jewish communities that reflect the options available in the current Jewish economy. An extraordinary energy seems present within this diversity, allowing for the creative explosion of Jewish messages, programs, resources and services. New structural and social realities are reshaping the contemporary Jewish communal marketplace. 

Today, Jews are accessing information, creating community and building relationships within the Jewish eco-system. We are living in an exciting but fundamentally different American-Jewish paradigm.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. A version of this article first appeared on the eJewish Philanthropy website. Windmueller’s writing can also be found at thewindreport.com.

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