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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Defining American Jewry: Ten Principles

The material posted below is designed to inform non-American Jews about the unique construct and character of the Jewish community in the United States:

  • To better understand Jewish Americans, one must both appreciate American culture and have knowledge of this nation’s history. American political values and the social norms of this society are reflected in the behavior and belief systems of this country’s Jews. The Cult of Synthesis suggests that what is Jewish is American, and correspondingly, what is American must be seen as Jewish.[1]
  • As a result of American “Exceptionalism,” Jews have achieved extraordinary success and visibility.[2] Today, this notion of exceptionalism is being challenged in some quarters, as Jews are perceived as part of the white society, and as such are identified as privileged.  Indeed, the issue of Jewish “Whiteness” has created a significant conversation and a degree of push-back concerning the place and status of Jews in this society, especially in light of the more recent rise in anti-Semitism.[3]
  • Regionalism represents another defining characteristic of American Jewish life. Jews take on the cultural attributes and social behaviors of their neighbors.[4] Local patterns of language, culture, and customs have been adopted by Jews reflecting their regional affiliation.
  • Jewish political engagement with American democratic institutions identifies the unique and intensive connection that Jews have with the United States. As an example, the percentage of Jewish voter participation (75-82%) represents the highest level of engagement by any ethnic or religious community in the United States. The Jewish “love affair” with America is most profoundly expressed through the political frame.[5]
  • Despite the attention and focus on Americanism, Jews continue to exhibit some distinctive and defining features, in connection with certain cultural interests, political behavior, and ethical perspectives, affirming their Jewish identity. The 2020 Pew Study in particular identifies these particularistic patterns.[6]
  • Not all Jews are the Same! Levels of American Jewish participation maybe one measure in identifying different degrees of engagement:[7]
  1. Engaged or Integral Jews: Highly-engaged activists and institutional leaders
  2. Participants: Involved in Jewish life on a regular basis but tend not to assume leadership roles
  3. Contributors and Consumers: Provide funding and/or utilize the services of Jewish institutions
  4. Quasi Jews: Jewish in some way but uninvolved in communal or religious life
  5. Repudiators: Deny or repudiate their Jewishness
  6. Quasi-Jews: Jewish status is unclear (intermarried-assimilated)
  • The Jewish community is deeply embedded within our larger society. Our communal and religious structures emulate the patterns of decision-making as well as the distribution of power as exemplified by the governing institutions of this nation. Historically, the community more clearly played out these divisions, separating “religious and educational” functions from “state” responsibilities, including social, cultural and political roles.[8]
  1. Jewish Social and Cultural Services: Jewish federations and their agencies (local), while the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) along with the umbrella organizations, including the JCC’s and other social and human service institutions would service their local constituencies.
  2. Denominations: Reform (URJ), Conservative (USCJ), Orthodox (OU). Reconstructionism (RCC), etc.
  3. Community Relations: Jewish Council for Public Affairs, AJC-ADL-SWC, and JCRC’s (Jewish Community Relations Committees).
  4. Israel Advocacy: AIPAC and J-Street, ZOA, IPF (Israel Policy Forum), and the Conference of Presidents.
  5. Israel Support Networks: JNF, IAC- Israeli American Council, Friends of IDF, American Friends of… (universities, hospitals, arts and culture, environment, sports and recreation, and schools and religious causes)
  6. Women’s Organizations: Hadassah, Zioness, ORT, NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women), and JWI (Jewish Women International), etc.
  • There is an extraordinary level of diversity in connection with defining and understanding who American Jews are. Contributing to this are such factors as Jews by choice (converts to Judaism), Jews of color (the 7-8% of Jews who are a part of this sector), and the multiple ways Jews define themselves in this culture, by denomination or no denomination, by employing cultural or ethnic terms, or by just labeling themselves as “Just Jews”.  Indeed, younger Jews are less likely to identify with established religious labels.[9]
  • Fourth generation American Jews exhibit higher patterns of assimilation and accommodation to this society’s social norms and practices than earlier generations. This phenomenon is most certainly not unique to Jewish Americans, as we see similar trends with other ethnic communities.[10]
  • One of the most extraordinary elements of the American national story are the many ties to the idea of Zion.[11] Early on, this country defined itself as the “new Israel”. Further, the deep religious and cultural connections/linkages exist within this society to the State of Israel.  We can point to two examples: the many cities and communities in the United States have adopted Biblical names and the deep impact and influence Christian Zionism and of Evangelical Christianity in shaping US-Israel relations. These historical factors and religious influences are markers pointing not only to the special political relationship between Jerusalem and Washington but also as important affirmations of the respect for Judaism and for Jews that undergirds the American experience.

Decoding the American Jew involves unraveling considerable data. The ten principles, introduced above, hopefully contribute to this process.  Other key factors include examining American Jewish denominationalism, understanding the American Jewish organizational “alphabet soup”, analyzing Jewish cultural motifs unique to this society, and unpacking American Jewish historical materials. Jewish communities, as we know, take on some of core attributes of their home culture, just as we also identify c

[1]https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/sarna/americanjewishcultureandscholarship/Archive4/TheCultofSynthesisinAmericanJewishCulture.pdf

[2] https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/american_exceptionalism

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/american-jews-always-believed-the-us-was-exceptional-we-were-wrong/2018/11/01/43be2f62-dd7c-11e8-b3f0-62607289efee_story.html

[4] https://www.jstor.org/stable/23887374

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/american-jewish-political-behavior-and-the-2020-elections/

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/american-jewish-political-giving-a-primer/

[6] https://www.pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/

[7] Daniel Elazar, Community and Polity, The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry (Philadelphia: JPS, 1995), page 92.

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/american-judaisms/

 

 

[8] https://www.bjpa.org/content/upload/bjpa/chan/Chanes.pdf

[9] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-religious-nones/

[10] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/assimilation-in-united-states-twentieth-century

[11] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/zion-in-america-this-nations-unique-and-historic-relationship-to-the-jewish-homeland/

 

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an 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.
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