Challenges and trends

A few before Pew:
some insights and trends concerning the Jews

Later this spring, the Pew Research Center will be issuing its latest demographic findings on the state of American Jewry. This latest survey follows its 2013 analysis of Jewish Americans, providing a further analysis of the changing profile of our community.[1]

In this moment, both in advance of that report and in connection with some new national data concerning American society, these ten findings may provide some useful insights. Some of the data being introduced here will directly align with the forthcoming Pew report, while other elements will likely reflect other social and ideological trends that may have particular significance for Jewish audiences and our institutions, moving forward.

In Search of the Next Generation: According to national studies in connection with US fertility rates, the numbers of new births appear to be down:

The decline in births could be on the order of 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births next year. We base this expectation on lessons drawn from economic studies of fertility behavior, along with data presented here from the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the 1918 Spanish Flu.[2]

Extrapolating from this data, it is likely the Jewish community will see similar fertility trends. The implications for our religious and day schools, camps and youth programs may well be significant over the decades ahead.

In his new book, The Agile College, Nathan D. Grawe predicts that this nation will have 9% fewer students enrolling in America’s universities by 2034, in comparison to 2025, already pointing to this emerging demographic shift.[3]

Life Style Considerations: 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.”[4] 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.[5] Here again, there may be significant implications for the Jewish community.

Diversity as a Critical Demographic Characteristic: As Pew is reporting through its national demographic report, “a majority of the U.S. population will be nonwhite by the year 2050.”[6] This reality should not be lost on the Jewish community, as we observe a growing racial and ethnic diversity taking place among Jewish Americans.[7] No doubt, the 2021 Pew study will reflect this outcome more directly in connection with our community!

An Emerging Economic Scenario: In connection with COVID-19, I have noted elsewhere:

The longer-term realities suggest an economic tsunami that will be both wide and deep, affecting broad segments of the Jewish institutional landscape and placing substantial pressure on the core resources of our fundraising and foundation networks.[8]

The implications here are significant and transformative. As our community moves beyond this moment in time, are we likely to see a reconfiguration of Jewish religious and institutional life?

Stronger Together: 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.[9]

Indeed, the Brandeis Impact Studies on Resilient Jewish Communities offers us data on how our various communal networks and services performed during this crisis.[10]

What does this mean for the vitality and growth of the American synagogue and for the variety of spiritual and cultural expressions that have arisen within our communal system? What might be the sustaining power of these trend lines moving beyond COVID?

The New American Religion: Shadi Hamid, writing in this month’s Atlantic, posits an alternative “religious story”:[11]

As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations.

In this construct America itself must be understood as a religious creed, deeply divided, highly fragmented, resulting in the unleashing of a civil religious war. What are the implications of this national religious and civic war within our own communal boundaries? Increasingly the Jewish community emulates and models its institutional behaviors and social practices on the basis of the broader public debate.

Branding is Everything: The question here is how might this be manifested after the pandemic? What specifically will these findings mean for churches and synagogues?

Never before have brands been asked to show their true purpose and leadership as they are today.”[12]

During this pandemic, the art of branding has taken on new significance, just as it has created significant opportunities. “Adaptive repositioning” according to Forbes, has allowed specific brands or organizations to expand their outreach, reaching new consumers while gaining a broader share of the market.[13]

Within the Jewish communal world, we are able to identify a number of institutions, including synagogues, universities, on-line Jewish media outlets, and national and Israeli-based organizations that have been particularly successful in expanding their bandwidth.[14]

What are the likely longer term implications of this phenomenon on the position and role that these groups will play in a post-pandemic setting? The creation and expansion of new national audiences may have a profound impact on reshaping the Jewish marketplace. It is increasingly likely that these globally-directed, media-oriented initiatives, employing webinars, zoom networks and classes, and blog materials, will dominate the Jewish institutional landscape? Are we arriving at a moment when we will see the emergence of a highly-influential set of communal operational voices that will likely dominate this new market niche in such areas as religious worship, Jewish learning and culture, and Jewish news and opinion?

There exist several measures in connection with monitoring the bandwidth of these key on-line programs and offerings.[15]

The Changing Dimensions of Leadership: What most likely will not be accounted for in the 2021 Pew Report is the profound and significant challenges that this pandemic has created in connection with the roles and dimensions of Jewish leadership:

Navigating through a crisis is an enormous test of leadership. A successful leader needs to be able to address the concerns of their team from a place of empathy and compassion, while inspiring confidence in external stakeholders and making hard decisions to ensure the health of the business.[16]

A Hebrew College assessment provides one glimpse into this contemporary Jewish storyline:

This year…our Jewish leaders and teachers have been called upon and tested as never before…, and have responded by utilizing their resources and training, rooted in thousands of years of ancient Jewish text, in the wisdom of the sages…[17]

On the professional side, we are experiencing significant job displacement.Institutional reductions in services and programs have been extensive, and the permanent closing of buildings and other communal resources will likely be significant, if not devastating. Even prior to the ending of this pandemic, we are observing a number of institutional mergers and the realignment of organizational missions, as a communal revolution begins to unfold.[18]

Yet, the primary tasks ahead for leaders will be as profoundly challenging as the experience of the pandemic itself, according to Rabbi Danny Schiff of Pittsburgh:

The impact of stress and psychological tension caused by the virus; the need for healing, including for families who have lost loved ones; and determining how institutions will move forward.[19]

Is Antisemitism the New Normal?[20] Gary Jacobson takes a deeper look into this new reality based on his years of reporting on the Jewish communal scene:

But in all those years, I never encountered such a level of palpable fear, anger, and vulnerability among American Jews as I do today, with attacks—verbal, physical, and, in two tragic cases, fatal—coming from the far left and the far right of our own society, and from attackers whose only common denominator is hatred of Jews.

What will be the long term fall-out on American Jewry, as we come to grips with the changing landscape of our fractured society? How might the presence of hate, both directed against Jews and others impact affiliation, communal participation and social activism in the decades ahead?

Endnotes: No doubt, the Pew Study will help to further define the ‘state’ of our communal and religious order, just as it will point to the emerging challenges and trends that are reshaping American society as a whole.

We are entering an extraordinary moment on the American landscape, as we also reframe our national story. The Heritage Foundation has recently laid out a broad agenda that raises central questions about the destiny and character of our democracy. Those issues will most certainly impact America’s Jews, just as the elements raised within this paper have implications well beyond our community.

As we embark upon a reconstructing our communal future, many of the suppositions we have held about Jewish life and American society will likely need to readdressed!

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com

[1] https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/research/half-a-million-fewer-children-the-coming-covid-baby-bust/

[3] https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2021/01/28/fewer-children-will-be-born-coming-years-more-will-be-able-pay-full-price-college

[4] https://pewresearch-org-preprod.go-vip.co/topics/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/

[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/27/as-millennials-near-40-theyre-approaching-family-life-differently-than-previous-generations/

[6] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/03/21/views-of-demographic-changes-in-america/

[7] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/population-of-jews-of-color-is-increasing-in-u-s-despite-undercounting-in-population-studies/

[8] https://www.jfunders.org/coronavirus_resource_page2


[9] https://www.pewforum.org/2021/01/27/more-americans-than-people-in-other-advanced-economies-say-covid-19-has-strengthened-religious-faith/

[10] https://bir.brandeis.edu/bitstream/handle/10192/38952/brjc_aggregate_topline_090120.pdf

[11] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/

[12] https://blog.adobe.com/en/publish/2020/05/06/through-covid-19-leading-brands-have-found-their-purpose.html#gs.w8cnc4

[13] https://www.forbes.com/sites/yolarobert1/2020/04/20/heres-how-brands-have-pivoted-since-the-covid-19-outbreak/?sh=459ae3b53beb

[14] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily-guide-to-our-zoom-events-livestreams-and-other-online-resources/

[15] https://blog.feedspot.com/jewish_blogs/ and https://jewishinsider.com/2021/03/whos-watching-what-week-51/

[16] https://biv.com/article/2020/08/how-pandemic-has-transformed-our-idea-leadership

[17] https://hebrewcollege.edu/blog/why-support-institutions-of-jewish-learning-and-leadership-during-a-pandemic/

[18] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/covid-19-and-the-american-jewish-economic-crisis/

[19] https://jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/judaism-post-pandemic-local-leaders-take-a-look-ahead/

[20] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/anti-semitism-new-normal-america/608017/

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com