In this Season of our Liberation: American Jews Confront Themselves

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

At this season of our moving from the narrow places that shaped our past to the possibilities of a new tomorrow, we find a Jewish community that is at a significant crossroads in its American journey. Today, external forces are undermining the political standing and status of America’s Jews, just as internal trends point to significant demographic and structural changes impacting our institutions and the welfare of our community.

Passover reminds us of the special opportunity to take stock of our current condition, along with the possibilities of creating new beginnings!

Lurking outside of our community is an increasingly inhospitable political climate, where hateful actions and statements orchestrated both from the left and the right are seeking to undo the political standing of America’s Jews. Inside the Jewish world one finds an array of threats producing a series of wars over politics and personalities. Religious decline, institutional instability, questionable economic practices, and generational preferences are each contributing to the changing landscape of the American Jewish experience.

External Threats:

In disruptive political moments, such as the one we are experiencing, minorities are facing new threats to their security. This pattern is evident today within American society, as racial and religious constituencies are encountering attacks on their status and role within this culture. Anti-Semitism represents one such expression of these tensions, as we encounter a significant spike in anti-Jewish and anti-Israel messaging.

Whereas anti-Semitism was a nonfactor on the American Jewish scene for nearly a half century, the sudden and dramatic rise of hate represents an unsettling moment for this nation’s Jews. Combined with political and economic attacks on the integrity and status of the State of Israel and the re-emergence of anti-Jewish activism on the European continent, a new age of anti-Semitism is unfolding.

The Jewish Political Response: Two political portraits today define American Jewry. National Jewish Triumphalists have emerged to reflect one such political statement. By contrast, Globalist Jewish Activists represent a second category of political behavior. The former involves Jews who identify with the ideas and the persona of both the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the State of Israel. Holding to the attributes of identity politics, these Jewish Americans embrace the special relationship that today binds the State of Israel with the United States. The latter political camp reflects an “internationalist” mindset focusing on both internal Jewish concerns and the broader social justice framework. Here, the imperative to repair the world serves this sector as it frames for progressives their political messaging.

The Israel Equation: Beyond the presence of anti-Jewish sentiment, American Jews are emulating the battle over globalism and isolationism in connection with the Diaspora-Israel partnership. While some Jews are pulling away from the traditional global or Diaspora connections, others are embracing the new Israel political thrust to the right, viewing the Jewish State and its policies as an integral part of their Jewish consciousness. The political divide around Israel and America’s politics have deeply wounded the collective Jewish soul. We have become a community at war with itself.

Internal Fragmentation and Conflict:

Just as there are external disruptions to the American Jewish story, radical and rapid changes are taking place internal to the Jewish community. In its wake, one finds a fragmented community. Various factors, some external to the Jewish scene, are contributing to these profound changes: the loss of trust in institutions of public service and the presence of new generations (religious nones) whose social beliefs and behaviors are challenging traditional institutional norms. The overall decline in institutional participation, the impact of assimilation, and the corresponding rise in virtual or social media engagement mark transitions in social behavior.

Institutional Transformation: In connection with these institutional changes, we are living through one of the most significant transitions in modern Jewish history. A new generation of institutions and leaders has emerged to help redesign and reinvent Jewish civic and religious life. One of the key outcomes of these institutional shifts has been the emergence of a culture of experimentation that is reshaping American Jewish practice. We see the impact of modernity on the character and substance of religious behavior involving issues of religious boundaries and conflicts over authority and tradition.

As with all American religious movements, Judaism is undergoing a fundamental realignment involving membership and organizational structure. The sea change taking place within religious life in America finds one-third of Americans have changed their association or affiliation or have totally rejected the religious option, confirming the current fluidity of religious connectivity. As we are living through a significant disruptive moment in faith identity, will our society observe a period of religious revivalism? Similar to the decline and rise of religious innovation found in the 19th century, will the next decades of the 21st Century reflect significant shifts in practice and participation as Americans return to their faith communities? Are we on the verge of new age for religious expansionism or will we witness the further decline of spiritual engagement?

As part of this transition, we are experiencing a significant definitional moment within American Judaism in connection with questions of authority, boundaries, and representation. “Who is a Jew?” represents a centerpiece of the debate over the future of 21st Century American Judaism.

Organizational Behavior: The overall decline in traditional institutional participation and the corresponding rise in virtual or social media engagement may mark the most significant transition in human behavior in this century. The nation’s religious decline emulates similar patterns found in connection with political behavior and civic involvement.

Organizations seeking to operate in a 21st century environment are still employing 20th century social practices. Models of competitive behavior and a mentality of silo institutional practice reflect last century’s operational mindset, while the mantra of collaborative partnerships and a culture of entrepreneurialism mark some of the best practices in the contemporary marketplace.

Generational Transitions: Millennials and their Gen Z partners are building their own narrative. In the midst of this generational revolution our community is transitioning from a 20th Century orientation with its focus on the collective communal story to a 21st Century emphasis on Jewish individualism.

Economic Considerations: Little attention or research has been given to the long-term impact of the 2008 economic recession on the Jewish communal system. The legacy of that moment in time ought not to be lost, as the policies and practices instituted during that recession continue to impact the performance and behavior of Jewish institutions a decade later. Operational policies, membership and financial standards set in place ten years earlier continue as communal policy and practice.

Individual economic patterns of participation and affiliation still reflect the social behaviors associated with the economic downturn. Further, the high cost of Jewish living remains a major economic barrier restricting many families to fully avail themselves of the religious, cultural and communal options.

Leadership Crisis: Leadership challenges remain central to the Jewish equation. In this nation we are experiencing a crisis of trust and confidence in leadership across the spectrum of institutional practice. The marginalization of leaders transcends politics and government and today includes a loss of confidence in civic and religious leadership as well. The discrediting of leaders corresponds with a parallel decline in institutional confidence and loyalty. In an age of competitive messaging, who is in fact speaking for and about America’s Jews? Who are the Jewish leaders offering thoughtful and coherent messages of meaning to both younger Jewish audiences and older Jewish Americans, seeking stability and certainty in this disruptive historical moment?

Many American Jews, already disillusioned by what they perceive to be an institutional environment driven by a culture of artificiality and controlled by a newly formed Jewish aristocracy, have given up on the Jewish communal order. The overt focus and attention on elite funders and donor recognition has driven other participants away from the communal table.

In an environment of deep political and religious upheaval, sadly we find Jewish leaders fearing to speak truth to power? Has a moral Jewish bankruptcy taken hold among 21st century leadership? The toxic character of Jewish institutional life has created a culture of fear where rabbis, communal professionals and lay leaders are unwilling or unprepared to address the policy questions and political issues that define the current landscape. Institutional wholeness and possibly job security appear to be the dominant values that currently limit a more candid and essential conversation concerning a destructive political environment and troubling communal playing field. In this era where many Jewish leaders are remaining silent, are some Jews looking elsewhere for articulate and assertive voices that may offer a pathway forward?

End Notes:

As we recall the Exodus saga, we are reminded that we face our own “narrow places” as we encounter the wars being launched against us by our political opponents, just as we take stock of our own internal communal unraveling. Passover affords an opportunity to revisit “our condition” with its array of threats, just as we reconsider the possibilities and opportunities that freedom affords in pushing back against our enemies and in reconstituting our community’s vitality and strength. Our journey at this season demands that we take an accounting of our place, measuring it against potential and real challenges as well as the creative options now before us.

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