Bridging and Bonding: Jewish Institutions Address the Crisis of American Social Capital

Many argue that Jewish organizations of every kind are being abandoned, especially by the next generation, who are turned off by the “institutionalized” Jewish life of their parents. Accordingly, many funders now direct their funds away from traditional institutions and towards new models of community.

This analysis is profoundly distorted and strategically damaging to the Jewish community. American institutions in general are in decline. The resilience of Jewish communal institutions, on the other hand, bucks this trend, and holds important lessons for how to revive social capital in America more generally.

Four Public Intellectuals Address the Crisis

The role of institutions in holding our society together is at the heart of recent work by four leading intellectuals: Yuval Levin, Robert Putnam, David Brooks and the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Each views American society through a communitarian lens and blames the decline of civic institutions for an increasingly lonely and alienated citizenship. Each advocates moving from an “I” society to a “We” society, through revitalized civic institutions, voluntary organizations and religious institutions.

In Morality, Sacks cites De Tocqueville’s prediction of what would happen to America without strong civic institutions:

De Tocqueville foresaw the risks… that people would leave everything that did not concern them personally to the state, and this would eventually lead to the end of democratic freedom. The only thing that protected America from this outcome was the strength of its families, communities, churches, and charitable organizations: in other words, its moral environments where people actively cared for one another. De Tocqueville’s warning still echoes today. Lose those environments of face-to-face encounter, where the moral sense is exercised, and eventually you will lose liberty.

Similarly, in A Time To Build, Levin argues that the abandonment of institutions is at the heart of many of America’s most pressing political and social problems. As he puts it:

What we are missing, although we too rarely put it this way, is not simply connectedness but a structure of social life: a way to give shape, place, and purpose to the things we do together. If American life is a big open space, it is not a space filled with individuals. It is a space filled with these structures of social life. It is a space filled with institutions. If we are too often failing to find belonging, legitimacy, and trust in our common life, then perhaps we are confronting not a failure of connection but a failure of institutions.

Levin singles out religious institution as providing frameworks for human flourishing and a way out of our never-ending culture wars:

A recovery of the ethic of community also stands the best chance of beginning in the kinds of communities that first form out of common religious convictions. Such communities offer a way out of the endless combat of our culture war. The fact is that an attractive community, which plainly provides a venue for genuine flourishing, can change minds far better than an argument can. A way of life can be persuasive, even when we seem unable to persuade each other of much. But such community requires healthy institutions that attract our loyalty and devotion.

Putnam, in The Upswing makes a similar point:

Religious institutions have long been the single most important source of community connectedness and social solidarity in America. Even in our secular age, roughly half of all group memberships are religious in nature—congregations, Bible study groups, prayer circles, and so forth—and roughly half of all philanthropy and volunteering is carried out in a religious context. For many Americans religion is less a matter of theological commitment than a rich source of community.

Brooks, in a recent Atlantic essay, describes such organizations as fertile breeding grounds for social trust.

[S]ocial trust is built within organizations in which people are bound together to do joint work, in which they struggle together long enough for trust to gradually develop, in which they develop shared understandings of what is expected of each other, in which they are enmeshed in rules and standards of behavior that keep them trustworthy when their commitments might otherwise falter. Social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate. Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.

The Surprising Strength and Resilience of Jewish Institutions

The idea that our Jewish institutions and particularly our religious institutions are failing is sadly, and wrongly I believe, becoming the conventional wisdom of parts of the American Jewish academic and communal leadership.

Proponents of this idea cite intermarriage statistics and the growth of self-described “nones” in national Jewish surveys as evidence of declining membership. But these hypotheses have never been seriously tested

In my experience, excellent synagogues, day schools, federations and other well-led institutions are strong and growing. Interfaith families are welcomed. Spirituality is increasing and rituals are being updated. The alleged alienation from Israel in liberal synagogues is refuted by continued strong emotional support for Israel and its people, if not its current government. Innovative ideas and programs are emerging from within the context of strong organizations.

The “synagogues are dying” hypothesis is not supported by the data. While it’s true that single young adults are largely uninvolved in synagogues, this is not a new phenomenon. Young adults outside the Orthodox community have rarely been synagogue attenders, with most following the “family life cycle” pattern, joining synagogues after marriage and children. The data from Pew and Birthright follow-up studies suggest that this “family life cycle” pattern is still alive, that interfaith families are increasingly part of this same pattern, and that Birthright graduates are even more likely to join synagogues in the years ahead.

In his comments on the 2013 Pew Study of American Jewry, Leonard Saxe, noted that, “perhaps the most surprising finding is that there has been a substantial increase in the number of synagogue-affiliated households … a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of affiliated Jews”

All this conforms to my own observations over thirty years as head of CJP, Boston’s Jewish Federation. Synagogues face many challenges and poorly led synagogues are dying. Well run, well led, innovative synagogues are stable or growing. Failing synagogues with new vibrant volunteer and professional leadership revive. I also believe that strong Federation support for synagogue innovation over the last thirty years in Boston strengthened both the synagogues and the Federation.

Resilience During the Pandemic

During the COVID crisis, synagogues moved more quickly than anyone could have imagined to serve their congregations through online services and support networks for the vulnerable. In a recent Brandeis study, 49% of congregants surveyed rated their synagogues’ responses to the COVID crisis “excellent,” 29% “good,” and just 8% “fair” or “poor.”

Day schools too moved quickly to offer high quality zoom education preparing for a safe return to in person education. As a result, many day schools will actually grow in the 2020-21 school year. Similarly, as Jack Wertheimer recently noted, Federations gained increased respect during the COVID crisis for holding their communities and institutions together while raising needed funds.

These examples underline the role Jewish institutions have played in buffering the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable individuals. As Sacks noted in Morality:

When the environment changes, people who are members of strong and diverse groups are at a huge advantage. They contain people with different strengths, variegated knowledge, and diverse skills, and by working together they can negotiate their situation with effectiveness and speed. They have collective resilience. A crowd of disconnected individuals does not have that strength.


Reviving the American Dream: What the Jewish Community can Teach America and the World

At the GA in October 2020, Robert Putnam drew on his own experience to des the special role the Jewish community can play in restoring its own institutions and leading change more broadly in American society:

“I converted to Judaism 60 years ago and I really do think many Jews by birth don’t quite realize how valuable the lessons are that the Jewish community could convey to the rest of the country…the rest of the world about bridging and bonding and how you make them work together.”

The American Jewish community is I believe uniquely suited to this role and capable of assuming this responsibility. Having lived without a country for nearly two thousand years we’ve survived and even flourished while maintaining our special culture and sense of peoplehood by learning the secret of institution building, and community making.

All of this must be part of a serious discussion for decision makers in the American Jewish community. While supporting new ideas and programs, we need to recognize that our future lies in innovation within our existing institutions. America’s Jewish community and its institutions have the resilience, passion, loyalty and devotion to provide “a venue for genuine flourishing.” It’s up to us to mobilize the power of those institutions and to develop policies that strengthen their capacity to innovate and grow.

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP
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