The Jewish Marketplace: Introducing the New American Jew

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As the pages of this website are constantly reminding us, there are new structural and social realities that are reshaping the contemporary Jewish story. How might we describe the current “state” of the American Jewish enterprise?

How Jews are living their lives and expressing their Jewish connections have radically changed. How contemporary Jews are accessing information, creating “community” and building relationships within the Jewish eco-system represent a different paradigm. The changes underway are producing a new type of American Jew.

In this paper we are studying a number of factors, including the changing characteristics of American Jewry. Section I describes Jewish communal practice by employing a comparative analysis of 20th and 21st century institutional culture. Section II explores the generic changes one can observe within American society that have implications for Jews. In Section III we identify specific behavioral patterns that are evident today in Jewish life. Finally, in Section IV, we explore the attributes or characteristics of Jewish communal behavior that contribute to the shaping of the New American Jew.

Section I: Transitions within the American Jewish Marketplace

Key Factors: Communal Practice “Traditional” Communal Model “Emergent” Model of Communal Practice
Timelines: Transitions will be faster as we move forward driven in part by technology and social change 100 years 1885-1985 The First American Jewish Revolution 30 years in Formation 1985-2015
The Second American Jewish Revolution
Technology/Communications Centralized Information Social Media and the Emergence of Alternative & “Virtual” Community
Leadership Challenges Peer-Networked Elitism Indifference to Leaders The Rise of Self-Empowerment
Cultural Transitions Collective Vision: Holocaust/State of Israel/Jewish People as Defining Themes Individual Perspectives: Post-Modernism: Cultural/Spiritual/Personal
Social Structures Collective Engagement: Federation-Synagogue Model Personal/Sovereign – Self/Privatized Judaism
Market Transitions One Product Fits All Branding-Niche Marketing
Global Shift from PowerCentered to KnowledgeBased Communities Power-Centered Institutions (ADL-AIPAC) Knowledge/Skilled-Based/Specialized Organizations/Single-Issue Constituencies (MAZON-JWW-AJWS)
Inverse Shift: From NationalGlobal to a LocalGlobal Orientation Global Jewish Network System (Federations-Jewish Agency Connection) Rise of Synagogue & Emergent Local-Global Partnerships
Ideological Loyalties and Institutional Differences Social Divide: Class, Race, Culture Religion and Nation/ Strong Institutional Loyalties Ideological Differences Dissipate among Liberal Religious Groups/ Rise of Political Divisions: Loss of Communal Consensus and the Collapse of Civility

The chart above introduces the various social and structural dimensions that describe the characteristics of these two distinctive time frames. The “traditional” communal system has been built around the federation-synagogue framework, representing the established 20th Century approach to Jewish engagement and crisis management. In contrast, we find an “emergent” 21st Century model, reflective of the rise of boutique organizations and alternative expressions of Jewish participation. This second construct is still in formation, while the first by many standards of measurement is winding-down or being reinvented.

Section II: The Social Change Forces

As we know there are many external factors influencing individual behavior and social culture; listed below are a few of the generic ingredients contributing to the specific changes one finds within the general society that have implications for American Jewry:

  1. The Changing Nature of Work within this society has been profoundly altered as a result of economic shifts. Several of the key features here involve globalization, the emergence of new technologies, and the communications revolution. As a result of these changes to the economic system, income disparity between the very wealthy and the rest of the work force has accelerated. “Work” itself is increasingly being redefined in the context of this emerging new economy.
  2. The Communications Revolution has fundamentally restructured how people and institutions operate. How society both “produces” and “receives” information has created an array of social media resources.
  3. The rise of the Millennial Generation is recasting a fundamentally different outlook on institutional engagement and loyalty. The traditional notions of “membership,” “affiliation,” and “community” are being recast, as alternative forms of participation are being introduced. What sociologists have come to understand involves a fundamental rethinking of the importance of distinctive generational characteristics and behaviors, resulting in different forms of identity and social connectivity.
  4. The Loss of Trust in Leaders and Institutions has profoundly altered the social landscape. As individuals have stopped joining traditional organizations, the lines of connection among people have been radically altered. Few leaders hold influence and standing among their followers in modern times, creating new constructs of what “influence,” “power,” and “authority” mean.
  5. In this information age how one acquires and employs knowledge has fundamentally restructured our Understanding of the Idea and Use of Power whether in terms of the economy, politics or social relationships. As a result, we are witnessing the rise of knowledge-based culture that operates differently from the earlier industrial-centered model.
  6. We are witnessing the Decline in the Role of Liberal Religion in American society at large, and within the Jewish community in particular. The historic power and presence of religion within our society has given way to other competing social structures and causes. Religious values are being employed as part of a renewed emphasis on social activism and spiritualism. Where once religious fidelity was seen as central to American social identity, today some 42% of Americans report that they have “changed” their religious affiliation, with many indicating that their current status is as a “religious none” (holding no religion)!

These six elements help to shape some of the changing characteristics, behaviors, and practices one can document as contributing to 21st century Jewish life.

Section III: The Social Mapping of American Jewry

As these rapid and significant social and structural changes take place, a different set of behaviors define the “new” American Jew. We identify below ten factors that are contributing to the unfolding of the 21st Jewish American:

  1. Lower synagogue affiliation patterns, with the emergence of alternative religious expressions;
  2. Drop-off in membership and support of key legacy Jewish institutions and the selective engagement with Jewish boutique or start-up models;
  3. High levels of educational achievement and professional attainment;
  4. Transitions in Jewish giving patterns, as evidenced by increased directed giving to causes both inside and outside of the community;
  5. The growth of Jewish social media; the rise of alternative and “virtual” Jewish communities;
  6. The presence of Jewish social/cultural divisions: Fourth and fifth generation American Jews vs. Russian, Persian, and Israeli first and second generation Americans;
  7. The Diaspora-Israel political/religious divide;
  8. The rebirth of Orthodoxy in America: its demographic, political and religious implications for the Jewish community;
  9. Multiple and competing Jewish identities: as promoted by the sovereign self, the privatizing of the Jewish experience, and the changing character of Jewish life-styles; and
  10. The rise of the Jewish mega-wealth class and their impact on philanthropy, policy and politics.

Section IV: Attributes of the Current Communal Landscape

If the elements above describe the individual Jewish actor, what are the characteristics that today are shaping the contemporary Jewish enterprise?

  1. We are no longer one community but rather can be described as multiple pods or communities. Where once there was a shared consensus about the Jewish story, today each individual is constructing his/her Jewish storyline. The collective mythology has given way to a highly personal rendering of the Jewish message. We are residing in a post-peoplehood condition.
  2. Choice and diversity are dominant themes when describing 21st century American Jewry. “Choice” is reflected in the broader cultural behaviors of this generation of Americans. How one defines or describes his/her Jewishness reflects the imprint of these various social forces.
  3. The current structural shifts that one finds taking place within Jewish life are driven by two primary factors: new generations of American Jews and the availability of new funding streams. Millennials are opting for alternative models of Jewish social expression, and new philanthropic investments are being directed toward supporting these initiatives. A new Jewish ecology of websites, organizations, and movements has emerged in response to the changing generational landscape.
  4. Historically, the State of Israel bound the Jewish community together; today conversations around the Jewish State create deep divisions.
  5. The social revolution that is underway has placed special focus on individual behaviors, rejecting the older modality of organizing with its emphasis on collective engagement, community, and continuity. In its place has emerged an array of single-issue causes and individualized expressions of Judaism.
  6. If identity formation in the past was constructed around a defined Jewish historical narrative, then today this story is framed through an integrative construct, where social issues and personal values intersect with one’s Jewish consciousness. Younger Jews are increasingly focusing their energies and ideas around enhancing and embellishing their passions. In this emerging model, the Jewish lens is but one of many competing forces that helps to shape the cultural, spiritual and political perspectives of younger Jewish participants.

End Comments:

We are witnessing the remaking of the American Jew, shaped by both the global forces of change and by the imprint of a new communal paradigm. How Jews understand who they are and what it may mean to be Jewish are questions being asked in the aftermath of these new developments. As the “New American Jew” emerges, he/she will exhibit a fundamentally different set of ideas and beliefs about the place that Judaism and the Jewish experience hold within their worldview.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: