At his 1902 inaugural address as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Solomon Schechter called for the widespread establishment of Jewish schools and places of learning across the United States. Today, we bear witness to an American Judaism transformed by this vision. The Association of Jewish Studies now lists more than 75 departments of Jewish studies around the country, including most of the top universities in the world. Jewish day schools, numbering 906, now shape generations of emerging Jews, and Judaism is now taught as a world religion in public high schools and colleges around the country.
Yet just 120 years after Schechter’s address, the Jewish Theological Seminary faces existential peril. Not because of failure, but because of its astounding successes. And it is not alone. Like many of the other institutions that helped strangers in a strange land find their footing, it faces an obsolescence of its own making. The communities it fostered, equipped with modern leadership, and taught to thrive in an American context have outgrown the needs that the institutions were established to serve.
Our communal leaders, and more than a few prominent academics, fear that the death of long-standing organizations will mean the death of the American diaspora itself. A narrative of Jewish self-destruction coalesced after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey revealed that a rising number of Jews married someone who was not also Jewish, waited to have children, had fewer children, were leaving Jewish population centers, and were disconnecting from synagogues and other mainstays of Jewish life. Jewish leaders and intellectuals interpreted the data in grim terms.
Literary critic and writer Leslie Fiedler likened intermarriage to a “silent Holocaust” in his 1991 compilation of essays, Fiedler on the Roof:
Not a single one of my own eight children has, at the present moment, a Jewish mate; nor for that matter do I ... In any case, there is no one to say kaddish for me when I die. I am, in short, not just as I have long known, a minimal Jew—my Judaism nearly non-existent—but, as I have only recently become aware, a terminal one as well, the last of a four-thousand-year line. Yet, whatever regrets I may feel, I cannot deny that I have wanted this, worked for it. …
Many other communal leaders used the less incendiary expression “continuity crisis” to describe how intermarriage would bring about the decline and fall of the American diaspora.
Today, this story continues to shape the way that Jewish leaders view the American diaspora. A New York Times article from 2018 proclaims, “American Jews Face a Choice: Create Meaning or Fade Away”—and goes on to explain five new books that affirm this premise. A contemporaneous piece in Haaretz argues, “Assimilation Is the Failure of American Jewry, Not Israel.” Even Israeli leaders are weighing in publicly. As one headline notes: “Israeli minister says US Jews marrying non-Jews is ‘like a second Holocaust.’”
Our obsession with the narrative of decline overlooks threads of optimism and opportunity. The comfort of this well-worn story anchors us in continuity with past generations’ angst. We feel the inevitability of failure, even when much is going well. We are still just a fiddler on the roof, bound by fate to come crashing down.
This narrative roots our attention in a history which may not repeat, and ignores fundamental changes in Judaism’s place within American society. And when we widen the aperture of our lens, we may see a new, compelling narrative.
The number of people who self-identify as Jewish continues to grow rapidly—from 5 million to 7.5 million people since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. New institutions, initiatives, and Jewish identities continue to emerge. Rising generations redefine roles and structures of power, spreading centralized power into networks of impact. In opening this broader lens of understanding our diaspora, we see a Judaism filled with transformations and the bloom of possibility even amid the collapse of comfort. Our diaspora is brimming with dynamism.
Even as self-identified American Jews leave mainstream Jewish organizations, they are brimming with pride of identity and new ways to express it. This great disconnect between people and institutions suggests that we might not be standing at the cusp of a great assimilatory death spiral, but rather a Jewish awakening, wrought by the sense of individual empowerment that Jews—and the countless people connected to Jews or exploring Judaism—now feel.
In the 21st century, American Jews hold more wealth, access, and power in the larger society than in any diaspora of the past three millennia. Jews run for president, lead industry, create new fields of study, and shape law and policy, while Jewish culture captivates the collective through television, comedy, music, and art. Rather than the narrative of the resilient underdog, the story of the modern American Jew is one of potency and choice. Even as American Jews face ongoing tribulations from antisemitism, national surveys over the past decade also report that American Jews are consistently the most liked religious community in the United States.
We still feel the momentum of immense organization of people, power, and purse to return our people to the Land of Israel, acculturate in America, and ensure the security of both populations. Yet in an era where Israel wields military and economic might like no rival in the region and Jews comprise a growing portion of America’s powerbrokers, these missions feel increasingly out of touch with the needs of our people.
In the wake of these successes, American Jewish institutions have been left with a vacuum of new purpose, causing us to defend existing achievements and default to past tropes. The American diaspora needs a new unifying vision, as a network of individuals harnesses Jewish tradition to realize the human power for good in an increasingly complicated world. We are on the cusp of a Jewish awakening, inspired by Jewish practice but open to all.
Thousands of people join Judaism every year across the country as “Jews by Choice,” while hundreds of thousands more live with Jews or as Jews without formal conversion. American Judaism is finally beginning to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of Jews of color who had been undercounted in population studies. Nearly 60% of children with only one Jewish parent are raised as Jews—and an even larger majority are exposed to Judaism.
New possibilities abound. Lines of leadership are being redrawn, with clergy ceding power to a broadening cohort of Jewish professionals and lay leaders. Technology is enabling us to explore the possibility of communities based on shared interests and values rather than shared neighborhoods. Ongoing efforts could enable pluralism to overtake denominationalism and create spaces for people who range from open-minded ultra-Orthodox to hyphenated heterodox to learn, grow, and explore Jewishly together. Israel can engage with the American diaspora as a respected peer rather than a vulnerable dependent.
American Jewish communal institutions are changing at an unprecedented rate. Synagogues, community centers, federations, advocacy organizations, and seminaries once translated between Jewish and American identities. Some now face a loss of purpose—while many are racing to identify and adapt to the new needs of the people whom they seek to serve.
The mismatch between American Jewish needs and the offerings of American Jewish institutions has triggered a new expansion of the American Jewish story. Jewish startups have burst forth into the mainstream, disrupting notions of community, philanthropy, advocacy, spirituality, learning, and belonging. Some are already scaling up to compete with longstanding bastions of American Judaism, which themselves were once startups.
It has been more than a hundred years since last we witnessed a vast reimagining of Jewish life, when wave upon wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe graced our country. American Jews have realized the early goals of the prior awakening. Within the present resides the promise of another Jewish revival. Jews—and potential Jews and people who are Jewishly connected and those who are Jewishly curious—are hungry for new expressions of spirituality, values, and community. Grassroots leadership is springing up around us as external manifestations of internal transformations. An era of experimentation, growth, and adaptation has given more Jewishly connected people more space to articulate purposes that can unite the American diaspora.
Emblazoned upon the proud entranceway of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America are the enduring words of wonder about the burning bush. Even fully ablaze, “the bush was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). The bush is glowing new colors today. A longer gaze and broader view show us what makes it wondrous: The fires do not consume it, but rather transform it into a beacon of purpose. We need only awaken to its brilliance and empower more people to behold it with wonder.
This article is adapted from the authors’ forthcoming book, Awakenings: Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.
Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple and Senior Fellow of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.