Ever since God chased Adam and Eve from Paradise, the Jewish experience has been defined by constant movement. In the past 3,000 years Jews shifted from a small sect escaping exile in Egypt to a national Temple-based model, then to a Talmudic diaspora, hunkered down in European ghettos and shtetls. That was followed by waves of migration at the turn of the 20th century that inaugurated a new promised land in America and over 100 years of Jewish American advancement organized around what became a lavish institutional Judaism.
Today American Jews are in the midst of another epochal shift. In short, the classic 20th-century archetype of American Judaism as a culture concentrated in big metropolitan regions and organized around major institutions has come to an end. The saga that began with Ellis Island is giving way to a new Jewish identity in which the internet now plays the role that urban neighborhoods once did as a hub of communal organizing and religious teaching.
The changes reshaping Jewish identity in America have been accelerated by the current pandemic on three critical fronts. The first is dispersion from traditional centers, notably inner cities like New York, to faster growing regions in the South and West. This pattern has seen the fastest growth among Jews both on the urban periphery as well as primarily suburban, sprawling, car-dependent cities such as Miami, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Houston, Atlanta, and Denver.
Even before COVID, sociologist Stuart Schoenfeld discovered that while Jews may be “city dwellers” who are “disproportionately concentrated in metropolitan areas,” the majority do not actually live in the urban city core. Indeed, he finds, “urban Jews are a minority among Jews and a minority among other urbanites.” In Miami, only 7,000 (5%) of the city’s 123,200 Jews live in urban core areas while in Los Angeles, they are 13%, and 17% in the Bay Area. Judaism after COVID is likely to continue its movement away from dense city centers.
A second major change has been the growing use of telecommunication technology, a phenomenon again hastened by the pandemic, which has forced synagogue doors to close.
In a process reshaping other religions as well, the ritual and intellectual observances of Judaism are going online. Arie Katz, founder and chair of Orange County, California’s Community Scholar Program, built a structure to bring world class Jewish scholars, writers, artists, and musicians to Southern California so he could learn from the best by crowdsourcing the cost. Since Katz, the child of South African immigrants, moved his programs online in March in response to COVID, average program attendance has increased threefold, and he has been able to increase the number of unique offerings from two a month to four or more per week. Moreover, his member base, once restricted geographically to Southern California, now has global reach with participants in New York, Boston, Seattle Europe, Latin America, and Israel.
The third factor has been the emergence of ad hoc or “fluid” religiosity. This is a trend seen in other religions as well, where people, particularly millennials, increasingly seek to navigate their own paths to spiritual fulfillment outside denominational and synagogue loyalties. Broadly speaking, the Reform and Conservative movements—vital for first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants who wanted to honor their traditions while fully assimilating into American culture—are now on the decline. In some sense they are victims of their own success. By providing a version of Jewishness that accommodated the demands and pulls of America’s modern commercial culture, they became less essential to subsequent generations that were already successfully assimilated.
The flip side of this story is the growth of American Orthodoxy in the 21st century. While their secular counterparts are shrinking, the Hasidim and other more traditionally observant Jewish communities in America are experiencing a surge of growth. But it’s not just organizations like Chabad that are flourishing. There also is the rise of diverse unaffiliated and independent minyanim, and an explosion of what can be termed “special interest Judaism,” ranging in focus from environment and social justice to cooking and spiritualism. There’s even a successful Boulder, Colorado-based program called “Adventure Judaism” where the rabbi frees people from their synagogues and video screens to encounter their Judaism as they “climb mountains, go skiing, play the guitar, and sing around a campfire.”
Beneath these structural changes are deeper existential realities that American Jews will have to face. Younger Jews turning away from the traditions and institutions of their faith cannot be written off simply as spoiled millennials. Many are responding to the legitimate failures of the American Jewish establishment to address their communal and spiritual needs. The postwar configuration that served upwardly mobile baby boomers has not adapted to a new world in which young people are less economically secure, and face a harder time starting families and a disintegrating social consensus and loss of community.
Another challenge facing American Jews will be the loss of their position at the center of the Jewish story. Over the past 72 years Israel has reemerged as the world’s largest and most consequential Jewish community. America’s Jewish communities are still among the most secure and powerful in history of the diaspora, and will likely remain so well into the future. But the relative diminishment of America’s role as Israel consolidates its status as the undisputed capital of world Jewry, will continue as well and will require a new conception of the relationship between the two nations.
Our aim here is twofold: to describe the major forces shaping the future of American Judaism and to draw attention to the challenges that threaten the continued thriving of American Jewish religious practice, community building, and family life.
Read the rest of this piece at Tablet Magazine.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Edward Heyman is currently active as a volunteer and consultant in the Orange County, California, Jewish community, following a career as a partner in a software development firm serving the defense and intelligence communities.