The New American Reality: Implications for the Jewish Community

Various factors are reshaping the American story, which has profound implications for America’s Jews.
March 22, 2024
Keith Lance/Getty Images

There are various factors that are reshaping the American story, which has profound implications for America’s Jews.

George Packer seeks to capture these new realities, when he writes: “The large currents of the past generation—deindustrialization, the flattening of average wages, the financialization of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right—all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant, and less fair. Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline.”

Four core elements help to frame the nature and scope of the changes we are experiencing as a society:

  • The demographic character of America is being recreated.
  • The political culture of this society is experiencing new and significant stresses and threats.
  • The American economic story is transitioning in significant and challenging ways.
  • The role and place of religion in the United States is undergoing profound change.

Let’s take a deeper dive into some of these transformative and challenging trends, unpacking their significance both for our general society and most certainly for the Jewish community.

Racial and Religious Hatred, Along with Populist Nationalism, Are Changing America

Religious prejudice and ethnic hatred have deep roots in American cultural history. Over the past century, extreme forms of nationalism have generated various forms of political extremism, including expressions of antisemitism. Just as these forms of religious prejudice and excessive nationalism are being manifested on the right, other expressions from the progressive left have made the political marketplace far more challenging. In this environment, anti-Israel messages and anti-Jewish sentiments have become emergent themes. In response, we will need to devise a new paradigm that is responsive to these new threats to Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel.

Religion in America is in a Deep Tailspin

As referenced in my earlier work, American religious life is undergoing a fundamental transition. A newly released Pew Study shows that “four-in-ten U.S. adults … lament what they perceive as religion’s declining influence on American society, while fewer than two-in-ten say they think religion is losing influence in American life and that this is a good thing.”

What is this emerging reality likely to mean for American Judaism? Despite the data that many Americans identify as “unchurched,” there is nonetheless a profound interest around spirituality and the search for “community.” Here is where Judaism can make a profound and significant contribution, as Americans struggle in finding personal meaning and in recapturing a sense of community.

The Character and Content of America Itself is Changing

As basic ideas such as pluralism and the celebration of core freedoms come under assault, the Jewish tradition’s focus on liberty may offer some valuable insights for American audiences. Jews believe that these religious principles are central to their American identity, while offering to the society some meaningful insights into how Jewish thought valued the ideals of freedom and justice.

The Great American Demographic and Generational Shift is Underway

Among the significant outcomes that will change the religious equation in this country, Islam will replace Judaism as this nation’s third major religious community (Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism).

A Wall Street Journal story focuses on another aspect of the demographic shifts now underway. “The U.S. is at the beginning of a tidal wave of homes hitting the market (21 million) on the scale of the housing bubble in the mid-2000s. This time it won’t be driven by overbuilding, easy credit or irrational exuberance, but by an inevitable fact of life: the passing of the baby boomer generation.”

The demographic transitions within this nation are also contributing to the formation of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic social order. Millennials and Gen Z are reshaping the cultural norms and social behaviors of 21stcentury America. This new generational and demographic paradigm will be key to the reframing of 21st-century American Jewish life and thought.

The Fourth American Economic Revolution is at Hand

 As technology, trade and consumer behaviors drive the new economy, the American economy will experience  an array of new challenges, involving job losses, the rise of artificial intelligence and the presence of a changing marketplace contributing to the reorientation of the idea of work and the retooling of this nation’s workforce.

The “Creative Edge” Has Dissipated

 The “creative edge” once uniquely defined the America story, but today such creativity is no longer so dominant. That intellectual spark that distinguished Americans within the arts, sciences and humanities appears to be diminishing. Some analysts believe that this nation is shifting from a culture of innovation to a mindset of preservation.

The “creative edge” once uniquely defined the America story, but today such creativity is no longer so dominant.

Where once science and industry were the hallmarks of research investment and development, today the accumulation of financial resources is the new measure of entrepreneurship. Correspondingly, in this new Gilded Age, are Jewish Americans modeling a similar pattern of accommodation to the existing order, no longer being seen as innovative pathfinders?

The Communications Revolution is Altering our Relationships and Connections

Operating in this new social media environment will represent a fundamental challenge. The revolution taking place is reinventing both the forms of communication and the rewiring of our networks of engagement. Our connections with other individuals, institutions and ideas are being reframed in an age where texting, X accounts, and the cell phone have reoriented how we communicate and with whom. How we receive and employ news, frame ideas, and build arguments are all radically changing.

In the process of undoing the ways individuals engage, we have also changed the content of our relationships. Truth, once seen as a noun, fixed in place and sacred in meaning, has taken on the character of becoming an adjective. Facts are seen as a relative proposition, subject to circumstance, convenience and context.

Voluntarism: A Core American Value in Free Fall 

One of the measures that defined the uniqueness of this society has been voluntarism: “Today, fewer Americans are volunteering their time and money on a regular basis. The national volunteer rate has not surpassed 28.8 percent since 2005, and in 2015, it dipped to its lowest, at 24.9 percent.”

Volunteering has been seen as a distinctive American practice, and with its decline, is our nation losing one of its core social attributes?

Jews emulated this concept of voluntary engagement in support of their communal and civic institutions. With lifestyle changes and a transformative economic environment, one can readily account for the undoing of this volunteer cultural model.

Political and Social Crisis Are Re-Engineering Beliefs 

People are questioning systems, while still believing that government can be responsive to societal needs, even if it often isn’t. The concurrent belief that the system is “rigged” has become a more dominant part of American culture. When a society losses trust in its core institutions, minority communities are most directly impacted. A shared acceptance in connection with both the values and instruments of government provides protection and security for groups more marginal to a society. For Jews who have long been invested in the American story, observing such a political disconnect should be seen as alarming and unsettling.

Demise of Community and Absence of Leadership

Lastly, but clearly significant, the demise of community and the weakening of Jewish institutional leadership both appear to be significant 21st-century trends. In a society marked by division, the undermining of institutions and the unraveling of confidence in leadership represent two major structural outcomes. Just as we see these trends present within the broader society, these patterns are evident as well within the Jewish community.

Each of these trend lines, introduced above, have broad implications for society and a specific impact on Jews. As the economic, cultural, social and demographic features of this nation undergo significant change, these forces will continue to influence both the content and direction of Jewish life in America.

This is a moment for the Jewish leaders and communal institutions in alignment with other religious, civic and political groups to mobilize national think tanks, university leadership and corporate executives in framing ideas about the future of the “American story.” These essential conversations that need to take place require bipartisan and cross-cultural engagement if we are to re-envision the American dream.

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

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

A Walk to Tel Aviv

May we have the awareness to notice and give thanks for the blessings already here. May we have the resilience to trust that better days will come again.

The Real Danger of AI

If you can’t tell the difference between authentic, profound human expression and machine-produced writing, then the fault lies not in the machine but in us.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.