The New American Realities: What Funders and Activists Need to Understand about America and its Jews

As foundation leaders, national organizational representatives, and start up institutional partners gather this week, they confront a new era in Americas story in part framed by the changing conditions that one finds today in this nation.

1442355528By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As key funders gather this week in San Diego to assess the Jewish and American landscape, a number of key factors are emerging that will generate a profound and sustaining impact on the “state” of our nation and its Jewish community. For those who help to set the financial agenda and institutional priorities of the American Jewish enterprise, indeed there are some sobering and challenging new realities associated with our society and its future.

A condition of discomfort and a state of uncertainty dominate the emerging political and social landscape of American society:

  • The New America: “We are all Minorities”
  • The Imprint of the Religious “Nones’: Religious Wars in America
  • The Technology and Communications Revolution: “Revisiting the Great Divide”
  • The Civic Disconnect: Coming for the Jews!

The World Has Come to America: While white America continues to maintain a bare majority, a new demographic story is emerging, namely that “we are all minorities.” Indeed, “there may never have been a society in history that was as culturally, religiously, and politically diverse as the United States is today.”

In addition to its racial and ethnic diversity, the growth and aging of America’s population is fundamentally changing the character of this nation. The significant learning curve here is that there are few models for how such a diverse community can sustain itself, and plenty of models for failure.

For funders who are interested in and committed to underwriting programs that impact the greater society and to those more directly committed to sustaining the core Jewish agenda, there are multiple considerations associated with unpacking these generic national themes.

Changing Character of American Religion: The recent Pew Research Center’s study noted the growth of the religious “nones.” In the 1950s that number was about 2%; in the 1970s approximately 7% defined themselves as such; today the religious “nones” account for 20% of the population.

As the columnist Michael Gerson argues, “Though the nones are varied, and occasionally confused, their overall growth has been swift and unprecedented. This has occasioned scholarly disagreement over the causes. Clearly, the social stigma against being religiously unaffiliated has faded … the decline of religious conformity is itself a major social development, requiring some explanation.”

How do we explain this significant shift in American religious practice? One theory centers on the religious right; this explanation is important because the rise of the “nones” correlates with the growth of the religious right within our society. The research confirms that the “nones” believe the religious right is primarily interested in money, rigorous rules and politics. Since the 1990’s the declining trust in religious institutions has been accompanied by a similar loss of trust in other core institutions of the society. Correspondingly, just as there has been a drop in religious affiliation, the confidence in government and big business has simultaneously declined. “Americans may be less affiliated with religious organizations because they have grown generally more individualistic and skeptical of authority.”

Yet, the same Pew study identifies 58% of Americans who describe religion as “very important” in their lives. Similar statistics demonstrate that prayer plays an important role in the lives of Americans. What is changing involves America’s commitment to institutional religious movements and what they represent.

Luis Lugo of the Pew Center observed that “what we are seeing is not secularization but polarization.” There are other major implications associated with the rise of the “nones.” One of the political outcomes here suggests that America is moving in the direction of having one secular party (Democratic Party) and one religious party (Republican Party), bringing further polarization to an already divided society. This political-religious schism creates further social division within the society, with each side viewing the other as theocrats or pagans.

Historically, marriage represented an accepted and celebrated practice within this society, yet today among many religious “nones” the institution of marriage as a core social value is on the decline. Of specific concern to many funders and community leaders must be the growing body of disaffiliated Americans, including Jews, who donate less to charity and participate in fewer volunteer organizations, reflecting another vestige of the shifting millennial culture.

The Technology and Communications Revolution: Another measure of social transformation involves technology and communications. Tom Friedman has suggested that the world is undergoing one of the most revolutionary periods of change in history. Globalization and information technology have combined to produce a systemic change in how the world connects and communicates. Friedman writes: “Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected.”

Friedman goes on to argue that “the merger of globalization and IT is driving huge productivity gains, especially in recessionary times, where employers are finding it easier, cheaper and more necessary than ever to replace labor with machines, computers, robots and talented foreign workers.”

This global transformation enables the creation of powerful minorities comprised of a skilled technology and investor class, accelerating the role of minority rule over those who are left behind, either unable or not equipped to compete in this new economy. The result of these changes has created a two-tiered society. Such technological transitions have resulted in the widening of the income gap as well, contributing to the fueling of social resentment. As a result of this revolution, a class of individuals today produce, manage and control the flow of knowledge and information and in the process of building this system have created a structural disconnect between themselves and the rest of the society.

The Civic Disconnect: Many have lost trust in the institutions that once defined and sustained us as “Americans.” This reality contributes to their sense of civic loyalty. If a significant cohort of this nation looses their point of connection and engagement with the established themes and institutions of the civic culture, they will possess fewer social ties to the status quo. As a result, they may well become aliens in their own nation.

As part of the “Trump Phenomenon,” one finds individuals, who express their alienation and anger through their support of Donald Trump, as they identify with an authoritarian figure as a means by which they seek to reclaim their voice and power within this society.

Coming for the Jews! History is an important barometer of what these social “hiccups” may mean for minorities in general, and Jews in more specific terms. When the social order is seen as unraveling and when significant elements of a society are disconnected from the power structure, there is an effort to take down those who are seen as in control or perceived to be powerful. The assault on minorities and the anger and hostility being expressed in this election cycle, all reflect this environment of hate.

As I have written elsewhere, “with the rise in inflammatory election rhetoric, the general tenor of anti-Semitism is escalating in America.” A total of 912 anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. were reported during 2014, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The results show a 21-percent increase from the 751 incidents reported during the same period in 2013 and mark the first time in nearly a decade that the overall numbers of such incidents have substantially risen. As the 2016 campaign continues to unfold, we are likely to see more examples of anti-Semitism as well as the embrace of racist ideas, making this one of the most hate-based election cycles in American history.

As foundation leaders, national organizational representatives, and start up institutional partners gather this week, they confront a new era in America’s story in part framed by the changing conditions that one finds today in this nation. As Americans revisit their relationship to religion, politics, patriotism, and their fellow citizens, we see new strains in the Jewish contract with this country. As investors in the civic enterprise, they must be acutely aware of the new dynamics that comprise the notions of community, civility, and culture.

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