JPR News Release
From Jewish people to Jewish purpose: The new age of social innovation in American Jewish life, and its implications for British Jewry
Wednesday 6 Jan 2010
Steven M Cohen*, a leading sociologist of American Jewry, discussed the new age of social innovation in American Jewish life at a seminar for Jewish community professionals in December. The seminar was organized jointly by JPR and JHub, the London-based Jewish Social Action and Innovation Hub.
Professor Cohen described the efflorescence of independent, exciting and creative collective Jewish activity carried out by young people in their 20s and 30s in the United States over the past decade, and explained that such endeavours fitted mainly into five major categories:
1. Independent spiritual communities
Cohen noted that these could be divided into two main categories: new independent minyanim (congregations led by volunteers) and rabbi-led ‘emergents’, (rabbis starting their own congregations), both of which were non-Orthodox by definition. Cohen maintained that Orthodox Jews had always created these types of minyanim; but for this to be happening outside of Orthodoxy was new. He claimed that the quality of davening (prayer) within these new communities was often exceptionally powerful and moving, and added that most represented an effective fusion of prayer, learning and social justice across the different compartments of Jewish life. Two of the most interesting examples are Kehilat Hadar in New York, and Ikar in Los Angeles.
2. Social justice
Cohen argued that there had been a sizeable growth in new organizations committed to social justice work. He was struck by the fact that significant funding and more professionals were available for social justice projects than for other areas of Jewish life and there was even a professional shortage in this area. One of the major debates within the field has been whether social justice work in the Jewish community should have an ulterior motive or not: i.e. whether initiatives should be established partly as a means to deepen engagement in Jewish life and values or to improve levels of in-marriage, or purely for their own sake. Probably the leading advocate of social justice work, Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service, strongly supports the latter position: the underlying purpose must be to support the beneficiary, but in so doing, there may well be additional Jewish educational and inspirational benefits for the participants. This emphasis on purpose and the creation of purpose-driven organizations is another defining feature of much of the innovative work that is currently taking place.
3. Jewish culture
Cohen was particularly struck by the fact that many of the initiatives in all five categories, including most of those in the field of Jewish culture, had grown out of the American Jewish Conservative movement, partly because of the strong Jewish cultural and intellectual capital it espouses and partly because of the freedom it allows. New Jewish magazines and record labels have been established which fuse together Jewish and non-Jewish culture in innovative and intriguing ways. Of particular note are Heeb Magazine and JDub Records. Many of the best-known Jewish foundations in the US have provided funding for new initiatives in Jewish culture.
4. New media
The growth of Jewish culture may partly be attributed to the expansion of the Internet and the decline in production costs. The Internet has allowed new music, videos and films to be produced and distributed at almost no cost. Much of the recent Jewish innovation focuses on building websites, which typically empower Jews to create their own Jewish lives on their own terms. As the Internet has become a two-way communications device, online innovations often allow users to participate in interesting Jewish activities that are free of any controlling authority. Examples include online facilities that allow people to create their own siddurim (prayer books) or access midrashim (Biblical commentaries) in ways that enable Jews to discover traditional texts.
Cohen highlighted Limmud as the most significant learning initiative which has had a huge impact on Jewish education in Britain, the US and across the Jewish world. He claimed that one of its defining characteristics is that it allows Jews to take control of their own learning and Jewish life. Any model of education that enables them to feel empowered in this way is likely to succeed. Divrei Torah (short lessons from the Torah) are becoming increasingly common, both as a rite and as a way to open meetings.
The ‘ABCD’ of young American Jews
Cohen said that all five categories demonstrated how young people were rejecting the Judaism of their elders, and responding to the shortcomings of the Judaism they had been taught, which they typically saw as:
A = Alienating: the young people behind these innovative initiatives feel alienated from the more conventional Jewish world, and wish to challenge many of its perceived norms by offering far more independence of thought and autonomy.
B = Bland and Boring: this is how they view the Jewish lifestyle choices of the older generation, and in response, they seek to create interesting and exciting initiatives. The Judaism they seek is stimulating, upbeat, passionate and happy.
C = Coercive: they view much of Jewish life as coercive, particularly those aspects relating to in-marriage and Israel. By contrast, the initiatives they are creating are characterized by an emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth. They like to see their work as either completely agenda-free, or, if there is an agenda, it should not be imposed through reprimand and rules, but rather through inspiration.
D = Divisive: they see divisiveness everywhere around them – between Jews and non-Jews and between different denominations of Jews. In contrast, they seek out diversity. They often dislike denominations and prefer a Judaism that transcends denominational lines. Similarly, they like to open up the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish, borrowing freely from non-Jewish culture to create new forms of Jewish culture, and demonstrating clear preferences for activities (particularly cultural ones) that happen in non-Jewish spaces, rather than exclusively Jewish ones.
Why is all this happening now?
Cohen explained that half of all non-Orthodox American Jews in the 25-39 age group are unmarried, and this represents the largest population of young Jewish single adults ever. This demographic is ill-suited to most traditional Jewish institutions which focus on in-married Jewish couples with Jewish children.
2. Growth in Jewish education
The huge growth of Jewish education in the 1980s and 1990s – day schools, camps, Israel experience, etc – have created a vast pool of social and cultural capital. When the graduates of these experiences fail to find their niche within existing initiatives and organizations, it is unsurprising that they should seek to create their own.
3. Growth of Non-Governmental Organizations
There has been a huge growth in NGOs and all kinds of self-initiated projects in the wider society in the past couple of decades, and one would expect this trend to be mirrored in the Jewish world.
4. Social acceptance
Greater Jewish integration into wider society and the decline of Jewish vulnerability are particularly important phenomena. Throughout the past 250 years there was always a Judenfrage (a Jewish question) with which wider society had to contend: what to do with the Jews, and how/whether to integrate them? There was also a modernity Frage within the Jewish community: how to respond to the challenges posed by modernity, and how/whether to adapt Jewish life to fit in with modern norms? Cohen maintained that these struggles were no longer relevant for this demographic. Being Jewish used to be a given, while being American or British was open to question, but today, being American or British is the given, while being Jewish is increasingly open to question. However, there remains a significant generational difference. The older generation continues to maintain a ‘we’ and ‘they’ mentality with the non-Jewish world; amongst 20-somethings ‘we are they’ and ‘they are we’. Jewish exclusivity is regarded by the younger generation as increasingly problematic, and many within this demographic are reluctant to participate in Jewish communal activity if their non-Jewish partner is unwelcome. Cohen argued that part of the almost total appeal of Barack Obama to Jews amongst this group was because of his stand against exclusivism and judgementalism, and his desire to break down barriers between black and white, Republican and Democrat, etc. The emphasis on social justice innovations may also be understood in this context, as young Jews seek to project themselves into the wider world and transcend Jewish/non-Jewish boundaries in a positive and constructive way.
The subsequent discussion among participants at the seminar focused on the perceived similarities and differences between British and American Jewish communal life. One participant suggested that in the UK, the numbers of young people and the funding available were far more limited than in the US. The role that religion played in public life in the US and in the UK was also seen as significantly different. Another professional suggested that maybe we were not so different after all, but that we were just more ‘English’ in the way we presented and expressed ourselves. We were generally viewed as more pragmatic than the Americans. However, the English were also described as more ‘hung-up’ about money, preferring not to talk about it. While funding was available in the UK, we were not good at asking for it. It was also pointed out that the Conservative/Progressive base in the UK was relatively small compared to the US. Finally, it was agreed that there were plenty of exciting innovations in the UK, but they appeared to be more intergenerational than in the US; they were not seen as being exclusively carried out by and for younger people.
Professor Cohen concluded with a stark warning that the community may well need to ‘change or die’. He suggested that the change agenda required three components: a ‘wedge’ – a critical image of contemporary reality, a ‘magnet’ – a vision of how things could look, and a ‘bridge’ – a means by which to move towards that vision.
* Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR/New York and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. Well-known for his 2000 book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in the United States, co-authored with Arnold Eisen, Cohen is one of the leading Jewish sociologists in the Jewish world. His books include Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences (with Charles Liebman) and American Modernity and Jewish Identity, as well as such other works as, Religious Stability and Ethnic Decline: Emerging Patterns of Jewish Identity in the United States and The Continuity of Discontinuity (with Ari Y. Kelman).
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