Rude ‘Awakenings’: Communal transformations in our time of crisis

A year and a half ago, we published a book on the awakenings transforming Jewish life for the better. While we found that mainstay organizations forged by community needs a century ago remained in decline, a burgeoning nonprofit sector of Jewish startups was rising to meet new needs of our people. Jews remained deeply interested in Judaism, and the American Jewish population was rising faster than that of the American population as a whole. The question was whether our communal organizations could catch up to people who had been embraced by American society as the most well-liked religious group in America.

Our legacy organizations and startups have since been battle-tested in the most difficult circumstances that the American Jewish community has seen in at least a generation, and perhaps two. Since the Oct. 7 atrocities that Hamas wrought against Israeli civilians and the ensuing war, American Jews have faced an onslaught of attacks, both physical and emotional. According to the Anti-Defamation League, itself a long-standing institution working to reinvent itself for a new era with new needs, reported a 337% increase in antisemitic incidents, including physical assaults, hundreds of incidents of vandalism, harassment and intimidation and expressions of support for terrorism against Jews in Israel and the United States. In addition, American Jews are feeling excluded from public gatherings, villainized on college campuses, targeted by community organizations that have never before issued statements on American foreign policy and used as political pawns in partisan positioning.

American Jews are rethinking their identities and reexamining how they understand Judaism itself. The growing notion of a wisdom tradition with universal appeal is largely being eclipsed, at least for the moment, by the visceral call to peoplehood as a group under threat by an increasingly hostile society. At the same time, widespread conflation of Israel with Jewish identity since Oct. 7 challenges efforts to separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism, leaving many Jews feeling the binary choice of either claiming their Judaism and absorbing anti-Israel hate, or abandoning their Judaism and being assumed to reject Israel. Meanwhile, the rising death toll of Gazans, widespread hunger and disease among displaced civilians and Hamas’ refusal to return remaining hostages or surrender pushes many American Jews into a quandary of competing values.

Many have looked to long-standing organizations for leadership, not only in national discourse as representatives of the Jewish community, but also on the local level, particularly with physical safety and social integration in question. While some mainstay organizations have maintained a national presence, their “ground game” in local communities is largely diminished due to cost-cutting measures. This includes denominations, notably our own, which used to have regional directors and leadership gatherings that could have been called upon to address the needs of specific communities and bring together clergy and lay people to create meaningful, proactive strategies.

Within this lacuna, startups connected to Israel and antisemitism have come to take center stage, and national organizations have put down local roots.

Zioness redoubled its strategy of community organizing, affirming Zionist voices in progressive efforts that had begun freezing out supporters of Israel. The right-leaning Jewish News Syndicate has provided timely reporting and sui generis analysis that clergy have used for their sermons and lay leaders have used to lead local discussions. American fundraising wings of United Hatzalah have inspired grassroots b’nai mitzvah projects and hosted galas across the country to support an Israeli startup that is readily becoming a mainstay for American philanthropists and Israeli volunteer first responders. The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, despite being founded by and for impacted Israeli families, has shaped the discourse around Oct.7 across the United States and engaged thousands of American and American-Israeli Jews in activism at the United Nations and other centers of political and diplomatic power in the United States. In our own New York region — and, perhaps soon others – the ADL strengthened a Signature Synagogues Program for congregations seeking educational programs, organizing resources and support in combating antisemitism.

Centers of Jewish learning have expanded their offerings to include more Israel-related learning opportunities. Hadar created a volunteer and learning program in Israel, while the Shalom Hartman Institute is doubling down on its gap-year program for American high school graduates, and the Pardes Institute invited its North American learners to “come back” to Jerusalem, indicating that its offerings in Israel are more important than ever for both geographic centers of Jewish life.

Organizations such as OneTable have looked at Jewish ritual such as Shabbat dinner as a pathway to create connection and catharsis and shaped specific tools for this time of fracture and fear. Sefaria served as a hub of text-sharing for those seeking Jewish wisdom in the face of the Oct. 7 massacre, the realities of war and a time of rampant antisemitism. The Institute for Jewish Spirituality expanded its offerings to bring Jewish practices and meditations to address the experiences of hate, fear, and uncertainty since Oct. 7, including a new mindfulness community for young adults.

Oct. 7 may be the defining event of our time for Jewish communities not only in Israel, but also in the United States. While we are just beginning to make sense of its long-term impacts, we suspect that they will accelerate institutional change while reanimating conversations on Jewish peoplehood, particularism and purpose. These may vary significantly by generation and geography and will cause local communities and national behemoths alike to articulate with greater clarity their higher purpose and how they seek to achieve it.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton is spiritual co-leader of East End Temple in New York City and director of leadership at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. They are the co-authors of Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.