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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Looking From Afar: ‘Trends’ Shaping the American Jewish Experience

Recently, I have written a series of articles focusing on various social, demographic and religious trends that are likely to have implications for American Jews and our community.[1]  In this selection we examine ten specific patterns dealing with institutional change, leadership characteristics, personal behavior and identity, as well as specific social realities and political practice, impacting the American Jewish scene. Indeed, each of these findings deserves a richer analysis and more in-depth assessment but taken as a whole they clearly lend themselves to a new storyline about Jewish institutional performance, identity formation, and communal culture.

  1. Consolidations: Today, the broader social and economic pressures are having a profound impact on the performance and behavior of Jewish institutions than at any time in American Jewish history. This can best be explained by the higher levels of engagement that our community enjoys with the generic civic culture. For every expansion wave leading to the creation of new Jewish organizations, there is a counter trend designed to promote the consolidation of these emerging institutions. We have just experienced another round of Jewish institutional growth, nurtured by the availability of new funders and supported by the presence of new on-line technology. However, in light of the current economic and demographic realities along with the impact of this pandemic, we appear to be entering another consolidation phase!
  2. Open Marketplace: Today, no one owns the Jewish agenda or the Jewish marketplace! There is neither a single compelling issue nor central institutional address. As a result, there is the flourishing of creative Jewish options and multiple points of entry.  For those Jews who are seeking to define their lives around Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel, there is no shortage of such access points. This maybe one of the most accessible moments in Jewish history to be able to find one’s particular institutional niche.
  3. Technology: Technology is reframing Jewish institutional picture as well! Along with the pandemic ‘s deep and profound impact on Jewish synagogue and communal practice, the availability of new technologies in linking people together, as never before, is fundamentally reshaping how we communicate, pray, and operate as part of community.
  4. Organizational Behavior: Today, there are fewer “touch points” impacting how America’s Jews act or “feel” as Jews. Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and to a lesser degree, matters related to Israel, still hold credibility, serving at times as mobilizing agents or influencers garnering Jewish engagement. As a result, some Jewish organizations, in an effort to “capture” new audiences and to be identified as relevant are moving into these market spaces. As I have noted elsewhere, when an issue such as Anti-Semitism reaches such prominence and heightened communal attention, we see the rapid redeployment of institutions, previously identified with other portfolios, shifting their operational focus in order to embrace this issue, as they seek to maximize the potentially high financial and programmatic payoffs in being associated with this agenda.[2]
  1. Organizational Performance: Where once Jewish institutions framed the best practices amongst this nation’s nonprofit organizations both in connection with effectively capturing and managing issues and in establishing distinctive and credible performance standards, today many Jewish institutions appear to be failing in these areas to effectively compete. Fewer organizations in the Jewish sector are regularly identified as exceptional or outstanding.
  2. Profiled Leadership: In this period where there is concentrated attention on media personalities, we see the rise of “national Jewish personalities”. While such a pattern operates generically in this culture, the Jewish response to this phenomenon has been supported by the Anglo-Jewish press with its annual listings of the “most influential” Jewish leaders, rabbis etc. Accordingly, some synagogues and national organizations seek to engage such “stars” to headline their institutions.  Personalities today are increasingly identified with these institutions, often changing the character of a star-studded organization.
  1. Identity: The more deeply imbedded Jews become in American culture, the less distinctive their connections to Judaism and to the Jewish people. With 4th generational Jews, we see a growing affinity among this cohort to adopt particular “American” cultural and “middle class” social behaviors.  Ideas such as “peoplehood”, Zionism, and Jewish identity have far less relevance and meaning to new generations of Jews.  Identified by the Pew Studies on Jewish Americans as a positive characteristic, “Pride” can best be observed as an ephemeral value, failing to carry with it the emotional pull to behave or act distinctively and institutionally “Jewish”.
  2. Cultural Motifs: Engaging in Jewish ethnic and cultural activities, including eating “Jewish foods”, watching “Jewish” films, and visiting Jewish historical or cultural sites must be understood as representing more symbolic actions than necessarily an overt affirmation of identity with the Jewish people. Many of these causal behaviors are as much about revisiting some romantic connection to one’s Jewish roots or family experiences. Engaging with Chabad or some other forms of “traditional “Jewish religious participation, ought to be understood, more often than not, as an act allowing one to reconnect with the Jewish past and/or as something perceived to be “authentic” and therefore “real”. (I should point out that this is an observation of how some Jews understand or experience such encounters and does not in any way represent either my views on traditional Judaism or more directly, Chabad.)
  3. On the Move! Based on a number of studies, we are seeing a good deal of physical movement (the uprooting of families) in this country as well as career transitions (the Great Resignation). Surveys point to the significant numbers of middle-class households, including Jewish American families, who during COVID have moved from large urban areas to second homes or to new locations, often away from high density population areas. Further, we note the large number of individuals leaving their professional and business positions, either for the purposes of retooling, retiring, or reinventing themselves. We are now seeing similar patterns inside the Jewish community, even among Jewish communal and religious personnel.
  1. Politics: Today, there are multiple forms or expressions of Jewish political liberalism, similar to what we are also finding among Jewish conservatives. The old political labels no longer define the political practices of Jews. As with cultural behaviors, Jews are increasingly taking on the political characteristics of the broader society, showing greater diversity of thinking and acting on the political stage.

Each of these observations requires more analysis, while giving way to a healthy dialogue over its implications and meaning for our community. Each principle introduced above should be evaluated on its own terms but also in connection with its partner findings.

[1] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-trends-what-these-changes-mean-for-the-jewish-community/

https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/2022-trends-in-american-religion-what-we-can-learn-from-christianity/

[2] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/when-anti-semitism-arises-a-study-in-jewish-communal-behavior/

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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