By Steven Windmueller
I was asked several years ago by a national Jewish publication to “predict the Jewish future.” As a colleague of mine suggested, we know how difficult it is to unpack the Jewish past, how much the more so to be able to speak about the future! In the end that publication did not elect to publish its findings. In many ways Jews have always contemplated their future, as we are a people whose DNA seems to include a built-in “worrier” gene!
Out of the interest and urging of my current students, I have tried to provide my input. This class of students was particularly intrigued by a May 1957 article in National Jewish Monthly, entitled: “What U.S. Jewry Will Be Like 50 Years from Now.” In this particular piece, Jacob Marcus and Oscar Handlin, two prominent American Jewish scholars were invited to tackle this question. Their observations are striking and in many cases “on target.”
But as with much of the discussion on Jewish life and its prospects, there is a gloom phenomenon, suggesting the “ever-dying” character of the Jewish enterprise. The pessimists amongst us would posit the question whether there even will be a Jewish people, citing the high rates of intermarriage and growing patterns of assimilation. The optimists, in turn, would point to the creative sparks within Jewish life, the growth of serious Jewish learning, and the expansion of American Orthodoxy as reflections of renewal and continuity.
The status of American Jewry is frequently compared to the overall “barometer” of the American success story. If this nation moves into decline will American Judaism likewise fail? And correspondingly, if this society continues to flourish, will American Jews also remain in a prominent and secure place?
The Change Factor:
The pace of change regarding social trends and economic indicators, for example, is significantly more dramatic than we might have anticipated between 1945 and 1980, another 35 year spread. One cannot predict, for example, transformative moments, as represented by the founding of the State of Israel (1948) or the Six Day War (1967), nor who could have imaged 9/11! The impact of these powerful events has served to transform the Jewish story. One must posit the “what if” question, pertaining to the uncertainty of the global scene and the potential implications for the Jewish future.
Jewish history provides some framework for helping us to understand our status and stake:
- Throughout their history Jews have experienced periods or cycles of political uncertainty. Are we likely to see over these next three decades any degree of upheaval that could impact the welfare and security of Jews?
- At different times Jewish personalities have inspired and given leadership to the Jewish people. Will such leadership emerge in the central decades of this century?
- Jews have created and maintained internal networks of communication and systems of social invention. How strong will be the “ethnic” bonds among Jews in this century to engage them to be connected to the lives of their co-religionists around the world? In turn, what institutions will define and give meaning to Jewish life in the 21st century?
- Jews have monitored their past in order to recognize special moments, sanctify their loses, and to pay tribute to their heroes and teachers but above all to acknowledge that our tradition has sustained the Jewish people. In our times we memorialize the Shoah, celebrate the founding the State of Israel, and acknowledge the such moments as the Sixth Day and Yom Kippur Wars. How will the next generations honor or recall this period of our history?
There are other “indicators” that would seem to be important in any consideration of the Jewish future:
Jewish Political Index: How politically influential will Jews remain? How might we define “power” in this context and as part of this emerging time frame? What will mid-century Jews be concerned about, and how will they express or carry out their political interests? Possibly more intriguing might be the issue: over the course of the next three decades how hospitable will America be to its Jews?
Will the world community see a continuous rise in anti-Semitism? If so, the Jewish future may well be compromised by a return to self-protection and the downsizing in many places of a visible Jewish public presence within the world? If the world faces further global tensions, what will be the particular impact on Jews, both here and abroad?
Intra-Jewish Condition: What will be the patterns of denominational and institutional connections? Which organizations will cease to be operational and will other organizations or models of organizing replace the current ones? What will be the role of religion in this new era? What will be the racial/ethnic diversity of our community? What will be the primary languages of the Jewish people? Can we identify the educational/literacy patterns (secular and religious) of Jews? Will we need to ask what are the criteria or measures for being Jewish; so is it possible that the “who is a Jew?” question may reappear as a major theme in light of the changing social characteristics and generational realities?
Jewish Demographics: Of particular significance, what will be the composition and character of the Jewish population of this nation? Will our numbers and character be significantly altered, as converts come to Judaism with varied backgrounds and upbringings, creating a distinctively “new Jew” with minimal memory or connection to the unfolding of the Jewish historical past?
Inter-group and Inter-religious Relations: how will others see Jews and how will Jews be involved with other communities? Jews have historically depended on the state of these relationships as a barometer of how well Jews were able to operate within a society. Clearly, as the number of Jews in relationship to the overall population continues to decline, Jewish influence and access will be comprised.
Israel-Diaspora Relationship: What will be the tenor and focus of this partnership? What will Israel’s role be in 2050 in the world, and more directly within the Jewish world? But the larger issue may will be, will the Jewish State survive? The question itself is challenging and in its asking both upsetting and beyond our comprehension, yet as Israel faces continuous challenges to its physical security, can the Jewish State survive the rise of radical Islam in all of its various forms and phases? How will the nuclear competition that is likely to define the future of the Middle East impact Israel’s status? Beyond the external threats to the Jewish State, one must also look inward asking if Jewish life can tolerate the growing religious, social and political divide that today defines Israeli society. Will we implode as a result of our own internal struggles to define our identity and our status?
Yet, allowed and able to fulfill its mandate, Israel could well be the economic engine and culture centerpiece of the Middle East, developing partnerships across the region with neighboring states that would benefit from its technology and in turn, could contribute to the rebuilding of the Arab world.
Jewish Economic Index: What will be the financial health of the Jewish community? What distinctive business and fiscal trends will impact Jewish life? In a changing global economy with the expected advances in technology and communication, we are likely to see the continued re-distribution of Jews to various “knowledge” centers and new economic hubs. I believe that the global economic picture will have a profound impact on where Jews will be living and how their lives and social experiences will be reshaped. This would suggest a further decoupling of Jews from their core communities, as an even more disjointed, virtual community emerges. No doubt an increasing part of the Jewish community will be “privatized” as economic forces will create more incentives for a business model to replace the volunteer framework. As technology advances, the virtual world will increasingly be the dominant form of communication and personal engagement, further isolating in-person contact and changing the meaning of “community.”
But in advancing the power of self, there will be at some point a pushback toward re-engineering the idea of community and the collective participation of people in joint causes. Events may well define how we as a people organize. Possibly, in light of many of these external and internal forces, will we remain a people, holding to some type of unified purpose and shared message?
As a Jewish wealth class is reshaping today’s communal landscape, will we see a decline in the economic clout of the community or will we see in fact a new infusion of resources, created by a new generation of Jewish entrepreneurs and funders?
Other Questions for our Consideration:
Will there be two “American Judaisms,” one traditional and one liberal? Will there be efforts to create one or more forms of Christian-Jewish amalgamations of tradition, or some other “religious mix” that seeks to “blend” American faith communities?
What will the synagogue of 2050 look like? If America follows the pattern of religious decline that has framed the post-Second World War European experience, there may be more synagogues operating as museums than as religiously active communities of believers? Yet, there are often cycles of renaissance within religious communities leading to a rebirth of faith and practice. How much of Jewish life will operate as a virtual reality, as we move beyond institutional connections to an “individualized” Judaism?
Indeed, all of these new realities will redefine what will mean to be a 21st century Jew!
Some General Reflections:
In summarizing the question: we will be a smaller community, with fewer resources, comprised of an even more diverse constituency than we know today, including a significantly large number of Jews by choice. Maybe the key element to this new stage of Jewish life in 2050 will be the geographical dispersion of Jews, including the presence of Jewish “colonies” living in Asia and across the Southern Hemisphere, and possibly even in space! Judaism will again be redefining itself with the emergence of new forms of religious and social expression, as it continues to adjust to the changing conditions of the marketplace. Jews will be caught between the push toward individualized, privatized forms of Jewish expression and the traditional volunteer framework of collective expression.
Our larger society will continue to be living with the challenges of global threats including terrorism, ethnic tensions, and environmental threats and possibly new forms of warfare. The major new tensions facing our society will be hostilities between the social classes over economic choices and the growing level of international conflict over declining natural resources. China and India among other new power centers will emerge as contenders for world influence as Europe continues to decline as a political and economic force. Africa will play an increasingly more important role in world affairs, as the Middle East fades into the background, unable to recover from the destructive nature of its internal Islamic wars and the corresponding loss of its economic oil position. Of particular note new space explorations will offer humankind the opportunity to conquer new worlds!
On a larger scale inventions, science and technology will not only change lifestyles but the quality and character of life, as we are likely to see individuals live much longer, as scientists uncover ways to contain or prevent certain diseases and the process of aging is reversed or altered.
Beyond these Words:
A possible first-step in exploring this issue may be about identifying the questions we ought to ask as a means of “measuring” the Jewish future. Toward that end I have identified a number of “categories” that might be employed to evaluate the health and vitality of the Jewish people covering the next 35 years.
We might consider these six categories for consideration as this conversation is carried forward:
- Religious behavior and beliefs
- Political engagement and the global condition
- Cultural and social practices
- Intra-Jewish connections
- Israel fidelity and continuity
- Environmental conditions: Jewish security and safety.
Such an exercise is only useful if there is the framing of a dialogue about the Jewish future, where many voices contribute to the discourse. So what might each of us add to this discussion?
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. For more of Dr. Windmueller’s writings, visit: www.thewindreport.com.