Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

21st Century Themes: What It May Mean for America and our Jewish Community

As America undergoes profound demographic and cultural changes, these social and economic trends will have significant implications for American Jews.  In this essay we are examining of these key trends:

The Emergent Generation: As with the Depression Generation, we are likely to see a Millennial Generation behave in ways that reflect what they have encountered between living through both the 2008 “Great Recession” and the 2020 “pandemic”.  These events will have a profound impact on how they will manage their lives, their economic choices, and cultural preferences! According to Pew Research Center, the pandemic has pushed millions of Americans, especially young adults, to move in with family members. “The share of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents has become a majority since U.S. coronavirus cases began spreading early this year, surpassing the previous peak during the Great Depression era.”

Are we likely to confirm similar data in connection with Jewish young adults?

A majority of Millennials are not currently married, marking a significant change from past generations. According to Pew, only 44% of Millennials were married in 2019, compared with 53% of Gen Xers, 61% of Boomers and 81% of “Silents” at a comparable age. Here again, there may be significant implications for the Jewish community.

New Demographic Realities: As Pew is reporting through its national demographic report, “a majority of the U.S. population will be nonwhite by the year 2050.”

  • End of Marriage? Are we seeing the downsizing of marriage, especially among younger Americans?
  • Rise of Women: More women are assuming leadership roles within American society than in any previous generation, transforming institutions and leadership roles!
  • Asia as the New Center of Immigration: More new Americans today are immigrants from Asia than any other part of the world.

Cultural Wars Before Us: This country is facing a series of cultural wars, as we seek to define the character and content of this democracy.  The political right is seeking to reassert an earlier definition that aligns patriotism with distinctive American values, beliefs and practices; the left in turn is seeking to create a new national consciousness about what Americanism might become. Part of this new definition revolves around canceling or removing earlier symbols and aspects of this nation’s historic tale, while others seek to reassert these national cultural artifacts.

In what ways will American Jews be a part of this conversation, and how might it impact the status and well-being for Jewish Americans?

The New and Changing Role of Government: Since the pandemic, we have seen a series of financially-distributive government policies, where Washington is not launching new programs but rather releasing funds into the economy through individuals and institutions. We should expect to see this type of government performance moving forward, as Americans are not trusting of a big central government, preferring to see localized leadership and individual control over the use of federal funding to serve the public good.

What might be the impact of this focus on a heightened role of government on the Jewish community, its institutions and services?

 The Rise of Religious Experimentation: We are in the midst of one of the most significant moments in religious reinvention and spiritual inquiry since the 1870’s, with the Great Awakening that helped to frame the modern denominational system. With this pandemic, a new wave of creative activism has captured the religious institutional marketplace. Personal search for meaning and connection represents a portion of these emerging expressions.

The Pew Research Center survey conducted during the summer of 2020 reveals that more Americans than people in other economically developed countries say the outbreak has bolstered their religious faith and the faith of their compatriots. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) reported stronger personal faith because of the pandemic.

 Are we likely to see a new American “religious awakening” and what might that mean for our synagogues?

The Flight From Cities: There is growing evidence of a massive exodus from large metropolitan areas, especially during this pandemic. This trend not only preceded COVID but is likely to continue beyond it. Congestion, high taxes, and the cost of living are key factors in driving families to “escape” these mega communities in favor of small town or suburban living.

What might this trend mean for our large city Jewish communal infrastructures, synagogues, agencies and federations?

How Minorities See Themselves and How They Are Seen by the Majority:  First, we should note that “not all minorities” perceive their status in the same way! Second, there is a growing realization that the multicultural, pluralistic model that defined the American body politic for much of the past century is coming undone. In this current vacuum, we are no doubt experiencing a significant rise in ethnic and racial hate crimes, the presence of a deep and widening divide around the role and place of minority cultures and communities within the political mainstream, and the further discounting of ethnic distinctiveness as a social value. As noted above, the emergence of Tribal Nationalists speaks to an effort to reassert “whiteness” as an American value and product. This comes as this nation is experiencing a demographic revolution, with the emergence of a new non-white majority, as noted above, that will be in play by the mid-decades of this century.

Where Does History Matter! While we are in a new time and distinctive sequence, the dismissal or marginality of history is highly problematic. While no historic period is duplicative of another, there are nonetheless core similarities. Discounting history is both problematic and dangerous, as we miss the significant lessons and nuance of the past. How we understand past trends, social behaviors, and cultural transitions will be an important indicator of how we manage and interpret contemporary changes.

 What are the specific implications for the Jewish community as it battles the rise in anti-Semitic expression and behavior?

Our Personal Well-Being: The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index identified “a significant decline in overall well-being among U.S. adults last year, dropping 0.6 points from 2016, with emotional and psychological metrics as the primary source of the decline. In fact, 2017 was such a standout year of stress, it marked the reversal of a three-year [1]upward trend in the index.” 1

Are our Jewish institutions, including our social service agencies, equipped to manage these growing individual emotional and social challenges?

Identified below are six additional social trends:[2]

  • We are seeing a “speed up” in the pace of society, as folks multi-task and move from one project to the next. The outcomes are resulting in more stress and a work-life imbalance, as the boundaries between work and home are narrowing.
  • Localization” has to some degree replaced the focus on globalism, as there appears to be a push-back against centralization.
  • The desire to achieve “happiness” has sparked a renewed search for meaning, where we are seeing greater interest in spiritualism.
  • A renewed focus on “authenticity” as life is seen as complicated.We are suffering from Too Much Information (TMI), Too Much Choice (TMC) and Too Much Technology (TMT). We are also being subjected to multiple truths…”
  • Personalization” appears to be the counter-response to both standardization and centralization, as individuals seek to individualize. 
  • A “networked” society is the result of the growing interconnectivity of the human experience.

Each of these social patterns will have certain indirect implications on Jewish life, including the presence of particular social behaviors and possible life-style choices.

As our community awaits the 2021 Pew Study on American Jews, some of these general trends maybe reflected in the specific findings in that report.




About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.