Ten Trends That Are Reshaping American Judaism

On these pages and elsewhere, I have had occasion to comment on the transformation now underway involving American Judaism, impacting both its substance and style.
February 13, 2024
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On these pages and elsewhere, I have had occasion to comment on the transformation now underway involving American Judaism, impacting both its substance and style. No doubt, the unfolding events of October 7th will alter some of these projections.

In framing this analysis, I posed three core questions:

  • What will we look like?
  • How and why are we changing?
  • What does all of this mean?

With reference to the first of these, here is what I am observing:

As part of the evolution of 21st-century Judaism, we are likely to experience the upending of the concept of “one Jewish community.” Our cultural and ethnic diversity, our competing political interests and distinctive views concerning Israel, as well as our diverse religious practices will each contribute to forging multiple, individualized and competing expressions of American Judaism. We will become a community of communities. Absent a shared consensus, Jews will experience a decline in political influence.

We are likely to see power shifts take place within our communal system as various institutions will lose some of their financial and political clout as members and donors shift priority and focus. Will the current focus on Israel, now central to Jewish concerns, be maintained, and what central policy questions and institutional priorities will likely drive the next iteration of Jewish activism? We should note that while crisis generates consensus, the capacity of a community to hold such a shared space quickly vanishes. 

The generational imprint will be significant and transformative, as we are likely to experience the end of such core operational elements as dues-affiliation-membership and even denominationalism. As Gen Z and Millennial generations replace older constituencies, alternative structural models will emerge. 

In connection with both the 2008 Economic Recession and more recently, COVID, we will observe the continuation of the homebased work arrangements and the outmigration from large metropolitan centers by a significant number of Jews, impacting specifically the Bay Area, Metropolitan New York and Southern California. This redistribution of population will likely continue and will have an ongoing impact on Jewish communal organizing, including a decline in membership and the corresponding downsizing of financial support involving various institutions.

Ever since the pandemic, communal leaders have acknowledged the growing mental health challenges facing the Jewish community. Certainly October 7th has generated additional levels of stress, depression and trauma. Our Jewish professionals are reporting higher cases of burn out and work-place tensions over these past four years.

How and Why Are We Changing?

As with the broader society, four core elements are driving many of the changes we are and will be monitoring. These include generational and demographic factors, the rise and impact of new technologies, the reality of economics, and the changing cultural and social environment in which we will find ourselves.

Serving non-binary Jews, Jews of color, and “unchurched” individuals will be among the new constituencies we will see entering our institutions. This heightened awareness of diversity and inclusion is contributing to the reshaping of Jewish communal and institutional life. Correspondingly, distinctive generational differences regarding identity and affiliation will also contribute to the redefining American Judaism.

Access to virtual Jewish platforms will need to be available to our constituencies as part of the changing culture of choice. Organizations and synagogues will continue to account for those pockets of members who are opting for a virtual Jewish connection. In some cases, we are identifying a new category of Jewish “virtual seekers” who are joining national and even international platforms of worship and learning, opting to move away from holding local affiliation in favor of embracing such national synagogue models. Living in a culture that emphasizes “choice,” “individualism,” and the “Culture of Free” will require institutions to offer a multiplicity of opportunities to appeal to the tastes and priorities of Gen Z and millennial participants. Among the generational outcomes here will be a renewed focus on spiritualism, a growing attention to cultural Judaism, and a renewed commitment to community organizing.

With reference to institutional performance, we note that while there is some expansion, especially among some of our mega-institutions, we note the continued downsizing among smaller and some intermediate organizations/synagogues. Mergers and closures are a much more common phenomenon, and such trends are expected to continue. Questions have arisen concerning the significant number of liberal religious seminaries and denominational institutions that serve an increasingly shrinking membership base. Economic issues, especially escalating operating costs, a declining membership base, and serving smaller and older family units encompass some of these challenges. Twenty-first-century institutions will require multiple funding platforms if they are to survive and flourish. With the likely disappearance of dues models and membership fees, a variety of alternative income streams will be essential.

The impact of antisemitism is both real and challenging. Personal as well as institutional security now becomes paramount. Congregants and community activists are expressing concerns about their safety in public Jewish spaces. Associated with this current acceleration in hate has been an increased interest on the part of parents to move their youngsters to safer educational options. 

What Does All of This Mean?

Institutions of all dimensions are exploring alternative ways to “deliver” their messages and “provide” programs. Even as we still find aspects of competition, there is a heightened awareness in this age of declining resources and the downsizing institutions in focusing on consultative and collaborative models of communal practice and shared opportunities for participation.

We also note that many institutions are committed to developing different delivery systems in order to serve members and reach new constituencies. Renewed attention to small gatherings, a part of the privatized, individualized focus we are experiencing will drive the redistribution of institutional resources. With Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, we are also seeing a significant transformation in whom we are serving, and how they may seek to relate to the Jewish community.

There is a renewed focus on professionals, and possibly of engaging paraprofessionals, as we encounter the downsizing of voluntarism. How we best deploy our professionals will be a critical factor in managing 21st-century Jewish delivery systems. With the absence of person power to handle many of the core tasks assigned to volunteers, how will professionals reimagine their priorities? 

Throughout history, Jews have been dependent upon their leaders to help frame the next great set of ideas. Today, we are missing such thought leaders who can shape a new American Jewish vision and agenda. With the events surrounding October 7th, our communal system will require a cadre of Jewish leaders, operating both inside of our community and outside, who can help envision and execute new and innovative organizing models.

There will be the need to provide safe spaces for essential conversations for Jews who are seeking to connect. Such topics, as Israel, antisemitism, American politics, and the future of Judaism will be on the docket. A significant portion of this will need to be inter-generational as we uncover the significant divides and perceptions among us regarding how we view issues through different historical, political and demographic lenses.

Closing Thoughts

What we are observing within the Jewish community is not unique, as mainline Protestantism and other faith constituencies also face such challenges today. The pace and intensity of downsizing appears to be more significant elsewhere, possibly providing some helpful insights and learning experiences for us, as we encounter such transitions.

As the Jewish communal order undergoes striking changes, how Jewish life will be altered remains an open-ended issue. What we anticipate is a period of experimentation, where multiple models of organizing and programming will be introduced along with alternative designs in affiliation and engagement.

Two ingredients will directly impact this momentum of change, the space that Israel will occupy in reshaping Jewish identity and practice and the role that antisemitism will have in influencing how we will respond. No doubt, the economy will drive the pace and scope of community building. And finally, culture and technology will play essential roles, the former in shaping ideas and content, while the latter in providing the various delivery mechanisms essential for attracting audiences.

American Judaism will continue to reflect the broader imprint of societal trends, just as it continues to be responsive to internal Jewish priorities.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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