The 21st Century and the Remaking of American Jewry

transfomation - butterflyBy Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The American Jewish community is undergoing a major demographic transformation, driven by the imprint of the millennial generation and influenced by a collection of economic and cultural forces. This new Jewish paradigm encompasses a number of operating principles.

The End of Community: We are observing the final phases of the legacy Jewish communal system. This is not to suggest that these centennial organizations will necessarily leave the Jewish scene but rather their operational structures and missions are fundamentally changing. Correspondingly, as a community in transition, about which this author and others have written extensively, we have witnessed the birth of an array of new forms of Jewish engagement, the rise of hundreds of boutique “start up” initiatives.

New Models of Organizing: The community is transforming itself from a system of mass-based, multi-issue, collectivist organizations to the formation of single-issue, individualistic-style institutions. These new forms of community organizing and the introduction of alternative funding models have resulted in a revolution in communal practice.

Changing Jewish Life Styles: The Millennials represent the most transforming Jewish generation in American history. Fewer Jews will marry, and more Jews will marry non-Jewish partners. Outside of the Orthodox world, Jews will have fewer children. The imprint of these demographic factors will ultimately alter the size, scope, and vitality of the Jewish community.

Alternative Jews: Increasing numbers of Jews today are operating outside of the traditional communal system; a growing segment of Jews are deriving their Jewish attachments through social media, on-line learning, and other forms of technological intervention. Often this sector operates totally beyond the organizational networks that historically defined communal engagement. This pattern of institutional disconnect was borne out by the recently completed Seattle Jewish population study, where a majority of respondents noted their lack of connection to the organized community. In this new age more Jews derive their information from social media and build their social connections through an array of informal networks.

The New Jews: In this new century we are witnessing two extraordinary phenomena: the emergence of a new type of American Jew (i.e. Jews by choice or “recovering” Jews, those individuals who are seeking to reclaim their Jewish identity) and the presence of an Orthodox Jewish renaissance. These developments are leading to a fundamental recasting of the American Jewish experience and in the process American Judaism is itself being remade.

Leadership in Transition: The traditional legacy leadership model is in decline; this historic pattern involved a generation of leaders who were deeply embedded and committed to the communal system. In its place, one finds the growing presence of a new leadership cohort, consisting of individuals appointed to lead Jewish organizations who have credentials from the public or business sector. In turn, a new operational culture within Jewish organizational life is being constructed reflective of these changing realities.

Of particular concern in today’s organizational culture, the lay leadership succession process finds individuals being inserted into positions of responsibility, possessing a minimal understanding of the nuance and complexity of what it may mean to serve as the voice and compass of a Jewish communal institution or religious organization. Money trumps experience, ego offsets vision, and expediency replaces commitment as we see organizations moving to “fill” many of these open leadership positions. The fallout here can be seen in the decline both in the quality and depth of communal leadership.

Economic Realities: Often forgotten, the Jewish community continues to experience economic aftershocks following the 2008 recession. The imprint of that financial tsunami has compromised the fundamental operational health of many Jewish religious and communal organizations. Some of these institutions may never be able to recover from the events of that time frame. Correspondingly, many Jews, like other Americans, have had to make financial adjustments when dealing with the current economic realities, including deferred educational and career choices and creating alternative pathways in order to access and participate within Jewish religious and communal life.

Over the past twenty-five years, no event has been more dramatic and devastating than this economic crisis on the welfare of the Jewish communal system. When one takes into account the impact of the 2008 recession and the effect of generational and life-style changes, the American Jewish community is experiencing a significant downsizing among traditional organizations and religious institutions.

Fewer Jews/More Jews: We are witnessing the decline of small and intermediate communities in various parts of the nation, just as it is possible to document the growth of Jewish life elsewhere in the country among selected communities. In the process of measuring community viability, we have come to understand the importance of “Jewish Density.” More than 40% of America’s Jews live today in six states. 97% of America’s Jews are concentrated in urban centers, with the highest concentration situated in the Metropolitan New York area, Chicagoland, Southern California, the Bay Area, South Florida, and the Greater Philadelphia region.

Learning toDo Jewish”: In connection with the changing character and density of American Jewry, such communal obligations and rituals as observing Jewish holidays, joining synagogues and affiliating with organizations, giving to Jewish causes, and the reading of Jewish books and texts are not necessarily practices that many younger Jews are prepared to readily embrace. These expectations are associated with knowledgeable and engaged Jews; but if one is new to Judaism or has only a minimal exposure to the Jewish communal experience, such expected behaviors are not culturally a part of such a person’s background or comfort level. As a result, we are seeing a fundamental repositioning of Jewish institutions, where teaching “to do Jewish” and creating “alternative ways of being Jewish” will be primary components of the emerging Jewish communal constellation.

Reclaiming Connections to the Social Good: One of the key elements within the Millennial generation is a commitment to create constructive social change; the Tikkun Olam factor appears to be a compelling ingredient. As various studies confirm, this is a population cohort that is prepared to act on behalf of causes that are seen as enhancing the society. This reality has sparked the rise of an array of new social justice initiatives designed to capture this passion.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus at HUC-JIR. See his complete writings at