Competitive market space

Who’s in? An exploration of the changing Jewish religious economy

In Short

In contrast to other religious communities, Jewish donors have an array of access points whether to join and/or fund a religiously-based institution, including synagogues, schools or camps. Alternatively, the Jewish philanthropic space affords donor participation with Israel-based organizations, cultural, social service and political advocacy groups, legacy movements and the emergent network of Jewish start-ups. The growth in Jewish giving most certainly is aligned with the growth of foundation support, the presence of new donors and the expansion of endowment giving.

Religion in the United States is valued at $1.2 trillion a year, making it equivalent to the 15th largest national economy in the world.[1] The faith economy has a higher value than the combined revenues of the top 10 technology companies in the U.S., including Apple, Amazon and Google.

In understanding the scope of this sector, one needs to take into account the economic infrastructure of the religious marketplace, encompassing schools, camps and congregations, social service agencies, media operations, online platforms and services, faith-based public policy and advocacy structures, food providers and domestic and international philanthropic operations.

More than 344,000 congregations and religiously affiliated organizations across the U.S. employ hundreds of thousands of staff and purchase billions of dollars in goods and services. More than 150 million Americans, almost half the population, are members of faith communities. Although the numbers of religiously connected individuals have been declining, the sums spent by religious organizations on social programs have tripled in the past 15 years, to $9 billion. The growth of the religious economy has been generated in part by the availability of new funders who have entered this marketspace, expanding the reach of this sector. By comparison, 20 of the top 50 charities in the U.S. are faith-based, with a combined operating revenue of $45.3 billion.

Jewish Giving:

There is minimal economic data on the Jewish communal enterprise. Studies by Wertheimer (1997)[2]and Tobin (2003)[3] provided us with some initial insights into patterns of Jewish philanthropy. The work of Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, deputy director of the Ruderman Foundation, and others are adding to the body of data on Jewish philanthropic patterns.[4] Indeed, in 2009, on this site, we read that the annual GDP of the Jewish community was $10 billion.[5]

Research into Jewish giving however continues to move forward, even as the community struggles to determine its full economic prowess.[6] While the overall numbers of Jewish charitable giving is at best difficult to analyze, what we are able to identify are comparative giving habits:[7]

The average annual Jewish household donates $2,526 to charity yearly, far more than the $1,749 their Protestant counterparts give or the $1,142 for Catholics.

In contrast to other religious communities, Jewish donors have an array of access points whether to join and/or fund a religiously based institution, including synagogues, schools or camps. Alternatively, the Jewish philanthropic space affords donor participation with Israel-based organizations, cultural, social service and political advocacy groups, legacy movements and the emergent network of Jewish startups. The growth in Jewish giving most certainly is aligned with the growth of foundation support, the presence of new donors and the expansion of endowment giving.

Religion in the Competitive Market Space:

Religions and religious groups operate as “…competing firms vying for customers who make rational choices among available products…” A religious groups’ popularity is dependent on the laws of supply and demand. As a distinct marketplace, religious consumers respond to marketing, the availability of product, resources and brand recognition among other market forces. But unlike an actual commodity, these commodities speak to an individual’s beliefs.[8]

Sociologists of religion have focused on the idea of commitment that represents an individual’s investment in faith as a rational choice, bringing with it particular rewards and benefits and serving as a form of religious capital.[9]

Religion must be seen as a “club good,” a class of goods whose consumption involves participating in a group where the behavior of one individual inherently impacts the welfare of other members of a religious community (Sandler and Tschirhart 1980).[10] “Club Theory” focuses attention on the mutual interdependence of consumers’ choices and expectations.

The “religion industry” provides specialized goods and services to its consumers. Religion belongs to a particular class of economic goods and services, requiring that its practices and resources be “self-produced” by each consumer. This production process involves an array of market purchases, such as buying Sabbath candles, hiring a rabbi or sending a youngster to a religiously-affiliated camp. 

But self-production generally requires some allocation of the consumer’s own time and direct involvement of the individual is especially important with its emphasis on spirituality and community (Azzi and Ehrenberg 1975).  We are reminded that Judaism is a time-intensive religion, and its time-cost can be an important factor in determining Jewish observance levels (Chiswick 1995). 

Religion in America: A Historic Perspective

Over the course of its history, America has experienced a number of “Great Awakenings” or periods of religious revivalism. The mid-18th century would represent the first of these expressions. This particular iteration would have little impact on the small numbers of Jews inhabiting this continent.

The 19th century has been referred to as a “spiritual hothouse” (Butler, 1990). This era was seen as energetic and creative with the development of new religious institutions and renaissance of older ones. During the middle decades of this century, many Americans saw the millennium at hand, leading to active efforts at conversion and engagement with religious organizations (Gaustad 1993). Similarly, with the ending of the Civil War, new faith constituencies and institutions were established.

Another such “awakening” took place following the Second World War with the emergence of suburban religion, a revolution in religious music and liturgy and the creation of alternative religious models of practice and worship. The Jewish response would encompass the growth of synagogue membership and the formation of new congregations, along with major developments in worship. 

Indeed, a different type of revolution has been unfolding since the mid-1980’s with the emergence of hundreds of alternative institutional expressions of online and in-person models of Jewish engagement and practice.[11]

Reflections on the Contemporary Scene:

Today, one finds a religious buyer’s market. At this time religion is not “selling” well in America. “Sellers” (Judaism, Islam, Christianity and more) are merely able to display their wares, with far less influence or access than in earlier periods. ”Consumers” define and determine the religious economy, with the exception of traditional religious communities which continue to withstand many of these outside pressures.

We are reminded that the American religious marketplace operates in a competitive environment where choice provides the individual consumer with multiple options. In the Jewish religious economy, quantity abounds in terms of opportunities. Young Jews today have multiple access points designed to assist them with defining their particular brand, style and approach to “being Jewish” or “doing Jewish.” Unlike earlier periods, this will be a moment where individuals are in a position to chart their own Jewish journeys. Among the more successful initiatives include OneTable, PJ Library, Moishe House, JCC and federation young adult programming. 

Jews and the Religious Economy:

There is relatively limited work on the religious economy and the Jewish community.[12] As Jewish life extends beyond the world of the synagogue as noted above, the communal enterprise is considerably larger than many of other religious market players.

The difficulty in measuring the Jewish economic enterprise stems in part from its complexity as we understand the Jewish communal market to be more than a religious model. 

Initially, what interested economists and sociologists of religion included the specific roles that Jews played as a minority within the economy of their host societies, including their alleged affinity to money commerce, and later banking. This phenomenon prompted studies on the role of Jews within economic history and the rise of modern capitalism.

More recently, Jewish economic history has paid special attention to such notions as both organizational and individual economic behavior and Diaspora-Israel economic connections.  Today, one can identify various competing Jewish economic theories over how Jews ought to understand wealth and the uses of money. Yosef Yitzhak Lifshitz posits a conservative halachic argument in connection with the role of money, when he writes:[13]

The Jewish approach seeks to encourage individual responsibility and innovation among both society’s most successful and its poorest members, for it is in these qualities that man acts as one created in God’s image. 

Alternatively, one finds a communitarian perspective. Interdependence among group members is significant for an economic analysis of Judaism, since one’s participation in “community” is seen as central to one’s religious observance (Chiswick and Chiswick 2000).[14]

When examining how Jews personally see themselves within the contemporary American context, the 2021 Pew data confirms a particularly high level of social satisfaction, noting a degree of significant financial success as well.[15]

What’s Happening to the Religious Economy?

Religious life in America is profoundly changing:

From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history.[16]

A recent study offers this conclusion: 

Disaffiliated Americans express significant skepticism about the societal benefits of religion, even more than those who have never identified with a religious tradition.”[17]

One thesis suggests that religiosity tends to decline with economic development.[18] Some economists of religion affirm that modernity is contributing to the erosion of religiosity. According to the theory of religious economy, societies that restrict supply of religion, either through an imposed state religious monopoly or through state-sponsored secularization, are the main causes of drops in religiosity. Correspondingly, the more religions a society has, the more likely the population is to be religious.[19] Conservatives refute this perspective  arguing that if a liberal religious society is tolerant of a wide array of beliefs, then the society is less inclined to hold core beliefs in common, so nothing can be shared in a community context without the presence of some compelling authority.

A point of significant consideration within the Jewish market space involves the question of the high cost of Jewish living. Families and individuals are confronted with such economic expectations as synagogue dues, day school and camp tuitions, kashrut, Israel travel, Jewish cultural and ritual purchases, membership and charitable giving obligations. How do these economic realities impact religious participation?

But what happens when the communal order is seen as weakening? Here the religious economy shifts from collective actions and shared engagements to personalized forms of religious and individualized cultural practices. The privatized, personalized model of faith expression generates different forms of religious economic practice and social behaviors.

“Community” today is self-defined; it is formed and shaped by individuals who may share mutual concerns. The construct is bottom-up rather than top down. Individuals are constructing their own collective organizing models based on relationships and common interests. As we have noted elsewhere, the corporate membership model does not work for millennials and Gen Z participants, where denominationalism, membership and affiliation do not resonate with younger audiences. 

As some writers are suggesting:

We need to update what ‘community’ means in today’s world. And maybe we’ll have to find ways to differentiate between different kinds of communities.[20]

“A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals” may represent a modern or alternative construct of community. Everyone in this framework has something in common.

Yet is this really a community model? “I have so, so many attitudes, interests and goals that I share with other people. But that doesn’t mean yet that I’ll feel a sense of community with them. For that, it needs relationships.”[21]

While religion maybe “out,” spirituality appears to be “in”! Studies suggest the presence of a significant number of seekers, folks in search of meaning, community and context are filling this market niche:

“Spiritual seekers are those who follow a path of self-discovery. Being a seeker might be a lifelong journey or one that occurs as a result of a life-changing event, such as a trauma.”

Such individuals are not necessarily religious. “Most often, they have little interest in organized religious practice. In fact, studies have shown that 33 percent of Americans are spiritual but not religious in the more traditional sense of organized religion.[22]

What is Lost, What is Gained?

Younger generations require different avenues and access points; they make independent choices about what they want to know, when they want to know it and how best to acquire and apply it.

What we cannot predict is whether there will be another American religious revival, similar to the 1870’s or 1940’s. Today, the framework of American Judaism represents a privatized, individualized, virtualized experience.[23] This suggests that a totally different delivery system will be in play. 

But what happens when the traditional religious order is seen as weakening? Here, the religious economy shifts from collective actions and shared engagements to personalized forms of religious and cultural practices. The focus here is on individualized purchases of materials and resources designed to enhance the specific lives of its consumers, with less attention to the needs or expressions of the collective community. As a result, we see different operational modalities that seek to address the particular concerns of seekers.

What Can we Expect?

“Intrinsic motivation” is built on the idea that one engages in a behavior because it is rewarding. You engage the activity for its own sake rather than out of a desire to secure some external reward or to comply with established social norms. The action itself generates its own payoff.[24]

Right now, the focal point resides with the individual and his or her respective journeys into spiritual discovery, religious knowledge, and personal inspirational growth. As a result, we are witnessing the rise of different intrinsic motivational models capturing younger audiences.

As we are frequently reminded, the American Jewish experience transcends the traditional religious market space. The very idea of “Doing Jewish” suggests a proactive notion, marking the Jewish experience as something that extends beyond the boundary of religion. The communal character and substance of the Jewish experience portrays a different framework of both thought and action from other religious-based constituencies.

The organizing principles would suggest placing specific focus on parlaying resources into educational and spiritual learning pods, small group engagement ventures, and selective community-wide programs around core knowledge-based initiatives and collective interests.

Various emergent voices in this changing environment can be seen as filling a particular niche. In this current market scenario, four factors appear to be particularly compelling: authenticity (does it look or appeal to be legitimately “Jewish”), cost-basis (how reasonable and flexible is the investment?), multiple access points (not all players enter this space in the same framework) , and flexibility of expectations (personal choice).

This emerging religious environment places emphasis on rational options, an appeal to the legitimacy and importance of preserving aspects of the tradition, of finding personal meaning, and of seeking spiritual connection, as well as building community.

Steven Windmueller is the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com


[1] https://religiousfreedomandbusiness.org/1-2-trillion-religious-economy-in-us

[2] https://avichai.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Giving-Jewish-Jack-Wertheimer.pdf

[3] https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/141922993.pdf

[4] https://nonprofitquarterly.org/americas-jewish-community-leads-per-capita-giving/

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-jewish-world-gdp/

[6] https://histphil.org/2019/09/26/introducing-the-jewish-philanthropy-research-initiative/

[7] https://theconversation.com/american-jews-and-charitable-giving-an-enduring-tradition-87993#:~:text=By%2520any%2520measure&text=The%2520average%2520annual%2520Jewish%2520household,to%2520data%2520from%2520Giving%2520USA

[8] https://www2.nber.org/digest/nov03/religion-and-economic

[9] https://www.jstor.org/stable/3512001?casa_token=0AlEwvHWWToAAAAA:1X7q2hcGwk9Qj9hufimYCnijy7OAnPQiYKaynSA60rpw0GOS-JMFn0QdCc7jY1EOH3fvpVi02-yS-in-Yi41gchSthV7CSsnPVYUd5wm-Nfi0LQhIHY

[10] https://www.jstor.org/stable/23455276

[11] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-revolution-is-upon-uspreparing-for-the-new-normal/

[12] https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199840731/obo-9780199840731-0106.xml

[13] http://azure.org.il/download/magazine/154AZ18_Y.Y._Lifshitz.pdf


[15] https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/economics-and-well-being-among-u-s-jews/

[16] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/

[17] https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/generation-z-future-of-faith/

[18] https://www.nber.org/digest/nov03/religion-and-economic-growth

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] https://medium.com/together-institute/what-does-community-even-mean-a-definition-attempt-conversation-starter-9b443fc523d0

[22] https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/spirituality/are-you-a-seeker-writing-self-discovery-transformation/

[23] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-rise-of-privatized-judaism-what-it-is-and-what-it-means/

[24] https://www.verywellmind.com/differences-between-extrinsic-and-intrinsic-motivation-2795384