The start-ups that spell hope for American Jewry

A new book argues that Judaism in the US is on the cusp of radical change


There are few subjects that divide the pessimists from the optimists quite as sharply as the state of the diaspora’s largest community.

According to the gloomsters, American Jewry is in the throes of irreversible decline (with the exception of its growing Orthodox minority). Six out of ten Jews who married in the decade 2010-20 took a non-Jewish partner.

At 30 per cent, affiliation to synagogues is half what it was 50 years ago. Attachment to Israel is waning among the young. All in all, the most powerful and populous Jewry outside Israel is being sucked into a vortex of assimilation.

But there is an alternative view: far from dissolution, US Jewry is undergoing evolutionary change with the potential for creative growth still very much alive.

It is a view championed by two Reform rabbis, Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt, in their book Awakenings, a manifesto for their vision of radical pluralism.

If the central institutions that characterised the organised community over the past 100 years are now failing to attract people, they argue, that is not because people are rejecting Judaism but because the organisations are no longer serving Jewish needs.

Instead, a variety of new initiatives have emerged to try to fill the spiritual and cultural gap.

“Our obsession with the narrative of decline overlooks threads of optimism and opportunity,” they say.

From one perspective, American Jewry appears to be growing. According to the influential 2020 Pew survey, the number who identified as Jewish rose from 6.7 million in 2013 to 7.5 million. On top of that, you could add another 1.4 million who consider themselves Jewish in some way, the authors argue.

Introduction to Judaism and conversion classes are full. Another survey from 2014 suggested that one in six of the Jewish population may now be converts.
More than 60 per cent of children of intermarried families are being raised as Jewish, the authors point out.

(Here traditionalists would challenge the interpretation. In families where both parents are Jewish, 93 per cent of children are raised as religiously Jewish. Among the intermarried, that figure is only 28 per cent: 29 per cent are raised as Jewish but not by religion: and a further 12 per cent as partly Jewish.)

Rabbis Spratt and Stanton nevertheless argue that we should stop trying to police the borders of Jewish identity.

Instead, sounding an evangelical note, they suggest that communities should be reaching out to anyone interested in exploring Judaism and Jewish culture — not only to those who have a hybrid Jewish identity but those who may have no Jewish ancestry but feel “spiritually disenfranchised” and might want to hear what Jewish wisdom has to say.

Intermarriage “opens up remarkable opportunities for demographic growth and social influence”, they declare.

Rather than mass-membership institutions housed in grand buildings, they suggest that the future lies more in home-based activities and niche groups as individuals search out the elements of Judaism that specifically appeal to them.

In that sense, we may be witnessing a “return to something closer to the early centuries of rabbinic Judaism in which loose groupings of peers, teachers and students study together and create novel approaches to Jewish practice”.

New enterprises that have sprung up in the past 20 years or so point the way forward. Some names will be familiar in the UK as they have crossed the Atlantic, such as the Jewish book club for children, PJ Library, or Moishe Houses, community hubs run by young adults for their contemporaries.

A staggering one in six American Jews are estimated to take part in activities run by the pioneers of Orthodox outreach, Chabad Houses, each year, the authors observe.

Ventures such as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and the Mussar Institute are adapting traditional practices for new audiences, in mindfulness and meditation in one case, and in practical ethics in the other. Mayyim Hayyim in Boston and ImmerseNYC are extending use of the mikveh.

Engagement with Talmud is being offered by the egalitarian Hadar Institute in New York or Svara in Chicago (which is the inspiration for the recently launched Queer Yeshiva in the UK).

New enterprises for women’s learning range from the Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Maharat to the Kohenet Priestess Institute.

A platform such as My Jewish Learning provides educational resources to support families and small groups. enables people to put together their own Pesach kit (including an express ten-minute Seder service this year).

OneTable helps young people come together for Friday night dinner by matching hosts and guests.

“The Jewish awakening has started around the periphery of organised Jewish life but will come to define the centre,” Rabbis Spratt and Stanton predict.

Start-ups have “burst forth into the mainstream, disrupting notions of community, philanthropy, advocacy, spirituality, learning and belonging”.

In the past, pluralism has been about the recognition of different Jewish denominations. But the authors of Awakenings take the concept much further, putting their emphasis on individual quest and fulfilment rather than the preservation of institutions.

Their delight in diversity is echoed in another recent book, Bad Jews, by the journalist Emily Tamkin, who concludes, “There may not be one recognisable way to live a Jewish life in the United States but there are many. People are finding and forging them all the time.”

The embrace of diversity is, of course, at odds with the path taken by the most rapidly growing sector of the Jewish world, the Charedim, who have taken to heart the Mishnaic directive to build “a fence” around the Torah in order to transmit the traditions of the past. Loyalty to community norms overrides personal taste.

If the trajectory predicted by Rabbis Spratt and Stanton proves right, then the two blocs, the pluralists and the religious conservatives, seem destined to drift ever further apart.

‘Awakenings— American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership and Belonging’ by Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Rabbi Benjamin Spratt, Behrman House, $24.95. ‘Bad Jews— A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities’, Emily Tamkin, Hurst, £20

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