The rise of privatized Judaism: What it is and what it means

In Short

Still amidst the pandemic, Judaism remains a communal experience. As the height of the pandemic in the U.S. receded, affording more opportunities to once again be together in person, many Jews remain increasingly drawn to virtual connection.

Jews are a communal people, with a collective set of rituals and traditions. Ours has been a culture of assembly, as symbolized by the centrality of the synagogue and the shared focus around celebrated holidays and festivals as Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. We gather, we pray with a minyan, we eat, we learn, we celebrate simchas and we mourn, all in a communal way.

As COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. in March 2020, our homelife became more grooved and separated us more than ever — children in the home, single, partnered with no children, young adulthood, older adulthood. In many ways, we were no longer geographically bound, we had lost the casual nature of our social interactions and most of our regular Jewish activities outside the home ceased. 

Pushed towards isolation, our response has been to reach for connection. Within weeks of this pandemic shutdown, Jews with access and ability to use the internet found themselves gathering in virtual spaces. With bountiful entry to all things virtual — lectures, classes, gatherings, prayer, children’s programming etc. — we were able to sample and explore the creative array of online opportunities. 

This imaginative response builds on a three-decade-long renaissance in Jewish life. While COVID-19 did not launch this creative Jewish moment, it most certainly accelerated both its pace and substance. 

Still amidst the pandemic, Judaism remains a communal experience. As the height of the pandemic in the U.S. receded, affording more opportunities to once again be together in person, many Jews remain increasingly drawn to virtual connection. This abundant opportunity to hold a fundamentally strong Jewish identity and virtually gather with other Jews serves as a conduit for a high degree of independent learning and engagement. We believe that the emergence of these online platforms has personalized in many ways one’s Jewish encounter. The climate is now primed for a decentralized membership structure making way for a communal yet individualized model.

In this essay, we examine a number of individualized Jewish platforms. Indeed there are today hundreds of such extraordinary and innovative websites available to an inquiring audience of seekers. Among these myriad activities, we focus on:  

  1. Sites that encourage one-time virtual learnings/gatherings.
  2. Sites that provide information (i.e. Jewish texts, shiva ritual information) that then lead to communal experiences.
  3. Sites that provide some or all of the above and have developed membership models or other paths to ongoing consistent interaction.

Judaism Unbound, a digitally driven, radically open center for education, has been actively grappling with larger paradigm shifts and experimenting with an array of communal offerings. 

At the Well, provides, among other learning and gathering opportunities, tools for women to create Well Circles, independently-run groups of 6-12 women, based on the rituals of Rosh Chodesh.

Remote Shiva, helps mourners who are not able to have a traditional in-person shiva, to recreate this experience as easily as possible online.

The Yiddish Book Center, offers access to all avenues of Yiddish materials, permitting the individual to explore the richness of Eastern European culture.

Jewish Studio Project, combines creative practices from the field of art therapy with Jewish learning techniques and spiritual community building.

Custom & Craft, is a platform for DIY Jewish life and ritual. One can create and publish one’s holiday service or lifecycle event to craft an experience that reflects one’s Jewish values and spiritual practice. 

Institute for Jewish Spirituality, offers programs and resources to cultivate mindfulness, deepen connection and enliven Jewish life.

Hadar, empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities of Torah, Avodah and Hesed.

Maor Intelligent Solutions, a technology firm, provides online resource materials for Jewish study and exchange. Two particular examples of this format are Knowledge Source and Tikun Teacher.

My Jewish Learning, provides resources for life cycle events and Jewish study for all ages. The site also provides a daily guide to Zoom events, livestreams and other online resources.

Truvieenhances and complements Jewish education for children across the globe by enabling one to create an online Jewish learning experience.

Jewish Music Stream, is one of a number of platforms offering a broad choice of Jewish musical selections, artists, and performances.

Foundation for Jewish Camping, serves as a repository and resource for the Jewish camping field by providing interested parents and kids with an array of information about camping, the options and types of Jewish camps.

Hazon, this website affords individuals access to Jewish resources, texts and ways to become involved in addressing environmental issues.

Beyond these particular platforms, consumers have the opportunity to virtually tour Jewish museums, attend Jewish film festivals and participate in cooking classes, among hundreds of other learning opportunities.

Understanding the Rise of Individualism:

COVID-19 accelerated a long existing trend toward individualized engagement. Every demographic study on American Jews over the past thirty years confirms the growing diversity of our community, contributing to changes associated with personalized consumer selections.

Already in 1987, Stephen Hart, in his article on “Privatization in American Religion and Society advanced this concept on privatization in connection with American religion. [1] Hart writes, ‘that is, within a privatized religious context, people can still have a vital inner spiritual life, can still attend church faithfully, and can even contribute money generously and participate in the organizational life of the church. Societal levels of religious belief and practice can be high. So what we are talking about is not that privatization undermines religion, but that it empties religion of meanings which connect us to each other or to our collective life in non-instrumental ways, and deprives American society of the resources such meanings provide.” A 2017 study on spirituality vs. religious affiliation conducted by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting insights.[2] It affirms that more informal, personalized forms of spiritual practice increasingly reflect the choices people are making. The rise of “radical individualism” within American culture and practice contributes to these diverse and personalized expressions of Judaism, especially during this pandemic:[3] The study highlights, “Most new offerings are built on the strong foundation of great innovations like artificial intelligence and smartphones. So, this time around, an innovative force with several times the impact of the printing press is rapidly ushering in an all-new age of the individual.”  

Similarly, Thomas Talhelm, Associate Professor of Behavioral Science, University of Chicago, observed:[4] “The enormous geographic footprint of the U.S. lends itself to the ideals of an individualistic society.”  Charles Lippy also posits in his book, Being Religious, American Style, that the movement to individualized religious and cultural practices is American in character and has been developing for some time, especially among women. The idea of “private devotion and home-based ritual” represents another derivative of this growing phenomenon of personalized religion.”[5] 

Judaism has not been immune to these trends. As Steven Windmueller notes elsewhere[6], “The new American Jew will cast a fundamentally different image: highly individualized, with distinctive loyalties and discrete sets of interests. “Individuality” will be the defining characteristic of this new species.” Elsewhere, Windmueller has argued[7], “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 their own Jewish storyline. The collective mythology has given way to a variety of communal narratives.” 

Choice and diversity are dominant themes in 21st century American Jewry. Choice is reflected in the broader cultural behaviors of this generation of Americans. How one defines or describes one’s Jewishness reflects the imprint of these various social forces and the existing consumer mindset. Although holding as a steady, albeit struggling collective, we have also seen a growing diversity of our community. This diversity of Jewish identity has played out via engagement with particular slices of identity and interest. People are drawn to film, arts, youth groups, education, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, Israel-Palestinian issues, the Hillel movement, culinary, environment, history, music, among other areas. A recent report, “Jewish Chicago: Who We Are: A 2020 Population Study” reinforces this movement toward privatized Judaism. It states, “Jewish life extends beyond organizational boundaries to activities that take place in the home, with friends, and online. Examples of individual activities include: discussing Jewish topics with family or friends; reading Jewish publications; eating Jewish foods; and participating in Jewish-focused culture and entertainment such as movies, TV, books, or music. Almost all Jewish adults (91%) discussed a Jewish topic in the past year with family or friends, and just under one third (31%) discussed a Jewish topic frequently. Almost as many Jewish adults (88%) 14 ate Jewish food in the past year. More than 82% of Jewish adults engaged in Jewish-focused culture. Just under three quarters of Jewish adults (73%) read at least one Jewish publication. Individuals in the Personal engagement group tend not to be members of Jewish organizations or attend Jewish organization-sponsored programs but did engage in Jewish personal activities. Eighty-two percent of those in the Personal engagement group discussed a Jewish topic with friends or family, 74% ate a Jewish food, 59% engaged in Jewish culture, and 41% read at least one Jewish publication.”[8]

The Generational Factor:

The current structural shifts taking place within Jewish life are driven by two primary factors: New generations of American Jews and the availability of new funding streams. The direction of philanthropic funds have always made clear the priorities of the individual. Amplifier, models collective yet directed charitable contributions through its mission of starting and supporting giving circles inspired by Jewish values. Millennials too, are joining these alternative models of Jewish social expression, and new philanthropic investments are being directed toward supporting this appetite of choice. Due in part to their comfort and accessibility with technology, younger Jews are able to practice this type of privatized Judaism with ease. With the absence of in-person gathering during COVID-19, these behaviors and practices have only accelerated. A new Jewish ecology of websites, organizations, and movements has emerged, as a result, in response to the changing generational landscape.

Much of this is about distinctive generational behaviors and practices, suggesting a fundamental shift is underway in the Jewish community.

The Collective vs. the Personal:

The boom in online engagement during COVID-19 was not the impetus for this privatized Judaism moment; however, it added significant momentum. Without our physical communal connections, we were forced to rely and reflect on our individual, personal relationship with Jewish life and our respective Jewish identities. The question is where does that leave us as we head into a post-pandemic world? 

We affirm that Judaism is about peoplehood. 

As Jews, our rituals, observances, and identities are impacted by an abundance of factors, life stages, geography, social circles, individual interests, and opportunities for engagement. The COVID-19 pandemic, similar to other large cultural and historical events, has shifted the way these elements affect and influence our individual and collective Jewish lives. In this moment where the sovereign-self continues to influence and shape many of the choices we are making around cultural and religious preferences, we are identifying a number of individuals and families who are opting to create personalized, autonomous selections. The layer of virtual vs. in-person experience brings even more complexity to how our communal expectations and individual aspirations remain in tension.

As our existential situation altered, the average engaged Jew now faces a familiar choice – apathy or intention. For those of us who choose intention, it means being honest with ourselves. What are we doing out of obligation? What brings us personal meaning? What brings us joy? And where and how do we find connection?

This then leads us to our next challenge — how has our sense of belonging in the Jewish community altered? What does it mean at this time to be ‘with’ other Jews? How do we blend these online, individualized opportunities for engagement with a sense of in-person connection? Could our paradigm for Jewish connection and thus identity be changing? 

How do we encourage the greater good in a polarized society at a time where there exists a heightened focus on every-person-for-themselves-mantra? We believe that this will require all of us to understand the better angels and worse demons of human nature.

Erin Tarica, LCSW, MAJCS is the former director of the Jewish Care Program of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

[1] https://academic.oup.com/socrel/article-abstract/47/4/319/1652027?redirectedFrom=PDF

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/

[3] https://www.livemint.com/opinion/columns/the-pandemic-has-unleashed-the-age-of-individualism-11608132621601.html

[4] https://www.buzzsprout.com/1801436/8869193

[5] https://bpl.bibliocommons.com/v2/record/S75C130023

[6] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/getting-into-the-mind-of-a-jewish-structuralist-insights-into-21st-century-jewish-communal-practice/

[7] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-jewish-marketplace-introducing-the-new-american-jew/

[8] https://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/community-studies/chicago-report.html#:~:text=Among%2520the%2520key%2520findings%253A,420%252C300%2520people%2520in%2520Jewish%2520households