November 20, 2018

The Many Stripes of American Judaism

If there is a single moment in the year when we pause to reflect on what it means to be a Jew, surely it comes during the High Holy Days. Not a few Jews, of course, attend synagogue only on those three days, and many of them only for the Kol Nidre or Yizkor services. So it is an appropriate occasion to reflect on who we are and where we are going as a religious community, and a good place to start is “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” by Jack Wertheimer (Princeton University Press). 

Wertheimer opens his book with the widely publicized findings of a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center that found that Americans in general are becoming less religious and that close to one-fourth of all Americans claimed “they were unaffiliated with any religion.” Judaism, too, has experienced what Wertheimer calls “plummeting rates of participation. He reports that 40 percent of American Jews “claim to attend synagogue seldom or never,” nearly 43 percent of Jews who belong to Conservative synagogues are “few-days-a-year Jews,” and “over two million individuals of Jewish parentage no longer identify as Jews.” But he also points out that the more optimistic observers of the Jewish scene “reject the notion that American Judaism is in decline” and insist “the Jewish religion is being transformed, not abandoned.”

Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his previous work includes “The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish Landscape” and “A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.” So he is uniquely positioned to offer what amounts to a kind of “state of the union” address on American Jewry, a report on the “lived Judaism” of American Jews.

His book is deeply informed by rabbis of all denominations, more than 160 in all, whom he interviewed in the course of his research, ranging from Sephardic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist to Charedi, “Open” and “Centrist” Orthodoxy, and Orthodox Outreach. And he insists that he found some good news out there. Many of the rabbis welcome what Wertheimer calls “a new spirit of inclusiveness and innovation,” which has opened the synagogues of America to “all kinds of family configurations” and welcomes men and women whose sexual identities once relegated them to “marginalized populations.”

Not everyone is quite so cheery, however, and Wertheimer’s book introduces us to more than a few Jewish leaders who are apprehensive about the future of American Judaism. “A Conservative rabbi of my acquaintance confides his fear that his bustling congregation, which hosts a day school enrolling hundreds of children, may be overwhelmed by a cultural ‘tsunami’ primed to sweep away everything he has labored to accomplish,” Wertheimer writes. “He is hardly the only rabbi to worry about building on quicksand.”

“It’s a tale of surprising juxtapositions and contradictions,” he sums up. 

“The overarching theme of Jack Wertheimer’s wholly enlightening  and deeply fascinating book is that American Judaism is a mosaic rather than a monolith.”

One example is the return of the Reform movement to more traditional practices. “Who would have imagined just a few years ago, for example, that in a number of Reform temples members are invited to prostrate themselves, with heads to the ground, during a portion of the Yom Kippur service?” he muses. “Bowing to the ground was seen as a practice only hidebound Orthodox Jews performed on the High Holidays.”

Yet it is also true that American Jews are not reluctant to “create their own do-it-yourself forms of Judaism,” he writes, including what he describes as “niche,” “pop-up” and “indie” congregations and prayer groups, many of them located in Southern California. Because so many Jews do not belong to synagogues, “a cottage industry of Bar/Bat Mitzvah entrepreneurs has sprung up.” Some traditional observances have been “inverted,” as Wertheimer puts it. When it comes to shivah, for example, “visitors to the house of the bereaved seem to expect a lavish banquet, with the mourners actually serving food to their ‘guests,’ ” which prompted one Reform rabbi to call shivah “pretty much the last hurrah of deli food.” On the far shore of Jewish observance, as Wertheimer shows us, the kabbalat Shabbat service is conducted every year at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, where the participants “adhere to the spirit of the law rather than its letter,” and one of the prayers is sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The extraordinary diversity of American Judaism, as Wertheimer shows us in vivid detail, results in instances of open conflict. “Among the severest critics of Haredi Jews are their Modern Orthodox coreligionists,” he writes. “[L]arge swaths of the Modern Orthodox laity … resent the air of superior religiosity projected by Haredi Jews. And, in turn, the latter make no bones about their contempt for the accommodations of the Modern Orthodox and their rabbis.”

The overarching theme of Wertheimer’s wholly enlightening and deeply fascinating book is that American Judaism is a mosaic rather than a monolith. Even within Modern Orthodoxy, where an identical liturgy is used in synagogues across America, he found striking variations in “how much talking there was during prayers, the subject matter of conversation, the formality or informality of dress, the efforts to include or segregate women, the types of liturgical music sung, and the pronunciation of Hebrew prayers (Israeli v. Yeshivish Hebrew).” And the Sephardic community is no exception: “If anything, the range of observance among Sephardi Jews is even broader,” although he finds that “Sephardi Jews have succeeded far better than their Ashkenazi counterparts in transmitting to their children a strong Jewish identity and a connection to communal life.”

Wertheimer takes a scholarly approach to his work in “The New American Judaism,” but he is not content with raw data. Rather, he seeks to find out what is actually at work in the hearts and minds of his fellow Jews when they engage in one or another of the fantastic variety of Jewish observance in America today. And so, when he describes the approach that many cutting-edge Jews are taking — “idealistic, expansive, and upbeat” — he could be describing his own book.


Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.