Post-Denominational Politics

Those who labor in the vineyards of the American Jewish community will readily attest to what sociologists have long known from their research: namely, that denominational affiliation among American Jews, particularly the non-Orthodox denominations, is waning.

What this means, practically speaking, is that today’s younger Jews, largely but not exclusively that segment referred to as millenials, do not feel a sense of bonding or allegiance per se to any “label” that American Jews might wear. Although their parents most likely joined a synagogue (something they are also unlikely to do until they have to) because of the denominational label it wore– i.e., they would have joined the Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood if they considered themselves Conservative Jews, or other synagogues for similar reasons– they themselves feel neither the inclination nor any obligation to define themselves as conforming to a particular segment of the American Jewish community. What drives them most as they search out their place in the community is the perception of authenticity, and the depth of meaning that they derive from their experiences with a given synagogue, or communal institution.

It is, at least to me, more than a little ironic that so many of us rabbis who lead denominational congregations across the country came of age during the Jewish counter-culture revolution that swept across the American Jewish community in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As American society as a whole was convulsing, slowly and painfully transforming itself from the relative tranquility of the 50’s to the social protests of the 60’s and 70’s, the Havurah movement was mounting a full frontal assault on what it saw as the sterile synagogues and services of the non-Orthodox world’s massive urban “cathedrals,” as they saw them. Then as now, the search for meaning and authenticity was the engine that drove the change. Synagogue services were stilted bar/bat mitzvah factories, servicing the earliest of the baby-boomers, and they saw them as vapid and hopelessly clergy-driven. They wanted to fashion a new form of worship wherein educated lay people, passionate about their Judaism, would make clergy obsolete. And re-invigorate Jewish spiritual life.

And now, here we are, in our sixties and seventies instead of our twenties and thirties, and our children are challenging our religious institutions in much the same way that we challenged our parents’ synagogues. As Stephen Sondheim might have commented, isn't it rich…

As I listened recently to what felt like the thousandth attempt of some political commentator to understand what is going on in American presidential politics right now, it slowly dawned on me that the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders is, in a very similar vein, representative of a "post-denominational drift" in American politics. The labels “Democrat” and “Republican” no longer command the automatic allegiance of American voters, nor do their candidates.

There was a time, not at all that long ago, when people would vote either Democrat or Republican based on occupation, family voting history, social conscience, or any number of other factors. If you were liberal, you voted Democrat, and if Conservative, Republican. If you were a union member you voted Democrat, but if you were a banker or businessperson, you voted Republican. You didn't even have to know all that much about the minor candidates. You just pulled every lever on one side of the voting machine or the other and you discharged your duty as a loyal member of your political party.

One could certainly make the case that the unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump has thrown the old guard Republican establishment into disarray, as he tramples on just about every principle they hold dear and gains record numbers of Republican voters. Some kind of tectonic shift is happening in the Republican Party, and anyone who says he/she understands it, beyond the obvious channeling of anger against the establishment, is probably guessing.

But in the Democratic Party, it seems clear to me now that while the shift may not be tectonic, the fact that Bernie Sanders is winning so many primaries and giving Hillary Clinton an unexpectedly real run for her money represents another, different and equally significant transformation. The throngs of millennials who are flooding Bernie Sanders' rallies and fueling his victories at the polls have asserted their will on the political process much the way they have on religious life.

Party labels don't matter anymore.

Once upon a time, for many reasons, Hillary Clinton would have been the candidate that college students and millennials were quick to identify with. Well-educated, obviously bright, tons of applicable experience on a cabinet level, iconic Democrat, and yes, the first serious woman candidate for President, all should have combined to make her a poster candidate of choice for younger Americans.

But instead, a much older, relatively obscure Senator has succeeded in fashioning for them a utopian Socialist vision of an America that would be fairer and more equitable for everyone. In so doing, he has captured their hearts and their passions, and their votes. He's neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but that's exactly the point. It doesn't matter to them what label he wears (or, for that matter, how wildly unrealizable most of his vision is). It's a vision, and it speaks to them. Against the bizarre backdrop of American politics in 2016, Bernie Sanders comes across as Don Quixote, and Hillary Clinton's old-style Democratic policy initiatives are old-school and tired. Trump is from another planet, but Hillary is just not their hero.

Whether or not the Democratic Party is able to unite to defeat a man who is arguably the single most unqualified and dangerous person to run for President on a major party ticket remains to be seen. It's a long way to November. But the millennial challenge to American politics, particularly to the Democratic Party, is likely forever changing the nature of America's body politic, just like its challenge to the Jewish religious world is changing the face and program of American synagogue life right in front of our eyes.

The times they are a-changin'…. Fasten your seat belts.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.