The New American Judaism, and Christianity

The New American Judaism, and Christianity February 26, 2021

I recently read a column that impressed me, in a source that Anxious Bench readers might not know. Anything by Joel Kotkin is going to be significant. He now turns his attention to issues facing American Judaism, and in so many ways, what he says speaks to the concerns of Christian congregations, especially mainliners and Catholics. The work gets to issues of the current state of religion during and after the present virus crisis, a theme on which I have written before.

The essay in question appears in the excellent Tablet. It is by Joel Kotkin and Edward Heyman, and the full title and subtitle read as follows: The New American Judaism: How COVID, suburban migration, and technology are sweeping away legacy institutions and shaping a new 21st-century form of American Jewish identity. The whole piece runs to some 7,500 words. Many of the issues addressed are specific to Judaism, including the diaspora, intermarriage, and Zionism, topics on which I will say nothing here. But at so many points, they could be speaking to mainline Christians, and the piece amply repays detailed reading.

The authors particularly stress three key themes. One is familiar enough, namely the dispersal of Jews (and many Christians) out of major cities, into the suburbs and exurbs, and also the well known and continuing move to the US south and west. I stress the following points are my observations not theirs, but the endemic rioting and civil unrest that began in Spring 2020, and the soaring crime rates that inevitably follow, will vastly accelerate this anti-urban trend, among whites, but also upwardly mobile people of all ethnic and racial groups. Virus-related fears have meanwhile created a crisis in public transport systems that would have been unimaginable before 2020, and then we factor in the ruinous effects of remote working on inner city retail and hospitality. Inner cities will be dying fast, much faster than they did in the mid 1960s, and anybody who can get out, will, sooner or later. Kiss “new urbanism” goodbye.

Going back to Kotkin and Heyman, the authors study the transformative shift of religious communication and practice to the Internet, a process that was already in progress in the 2010s, but like so much else, received a rocket sled acceleration with COVID. Finally, they address

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.

None of those points are too startling in and of themselves, but they are explored thoughtfully. Other trends are much fresher, and demand careful thought. At every stage, Reform and Conservative Jews face critical demographic pressures. Jews who used to worry about intermarriage now face the much more basic issue of whether people are getting married at all, and fertility rates are plunging. In this as in so much else, the very fertile Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox are radically different. But Catholics especially should be acutely aware of those all those demographic questions. Were it not for mass immigration, mainly Asian and Latino, the US Catholic church would be in demographic freefall. In the Jewish case, the authors suggest,

The situation calls for a wholesale refocusing of Jewish life away from obsolete denominational patterns and the dual fixations on Zionism and anti-Semitism, and toward a renewed conception of Judaism as integral to daily life and struggles.

It would not be too hard to adapt such a remark to questions about “will Christian church X survive?” I wince at that phrase “legacy institutions,” but know exactly what they mean.

Almost as easily adapted is the statement that

There’s a conflict… between millennial demographic patterns and the traditional life trajectory that synagogues are structured to serve. American synagogues don’t know what to do with young people between their b’nai mitzvah-age adolescence and the time they have children of their own. This “doesn’t work for millennials, who are staying in school longer and getting married and having children later in life (if at all).”

Substitute church for synagogue, adapt the bar mitzvah, and oh my, does that sound familiar. What happens to any religious institution when you factor out children?

And as to the clergy in mainline churches, does anything in the following sentence sound vaguely familiar?

This is also a growing chasm between an increasingly left-wing rabbinate that dominates all but the traditionalist Orthodox denominations, and their synagogues’ often more conservative, or at least centrist, members and donors.

Can I get an Amen on that?

Or how about this financial observation?

“The many Jewish institutions that rely on attendance, membership dues and other sources of revenue may not be able to hold on until the crisis is over,” wrote David Suissa, publisher of the LA Jewish Journal, recently.

The authors are very strong on the move to the Internet, which takes up a sizable part of the article:

The radical shift resulting from Jews accessing their Judaism online is the decoupling from physical space. Rabbi Marcia Tilchin, who founded the Collaborative, believes that “niche programming that people can access from anywhere will dominate for the next 20 years” and that “there will be no one cultural place people will go for their Jewish infusion when they can go anywhere” online.

Substitute church for synagogue, and Pastor for Rabbi, and the picture is very similar indeed. The authors here consider the consequences, including what worship can look like in this extremely decentralized space. DO particularly check out their section on “independent minyans,” which are basically micro-communities that operate wholly online. For a Christian parallel, think totally online “house churches.”

Anyway, read the whole thing, right up to the wise final words:

In flexibility, as well as faith, lies the people’s future.

Amen again.

I will also cite here an excellent related book, Jack Wertheimer’s The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today (Princeton 2018). Heidi Campbell edited a significant collection on Digital Judaism: Jewish Negotiations with Digital Media and Culture (Routledge 2015). Both, likewise, have much to teach Christian readers.








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