From Jewish People to Jewish Purpose

From Jewish people to Jewish purpose: The new age of social innovation in American Jewish life

Notes from a talk given by Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, UK, December 2 2009.

There has been an 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. See, for example, The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, Reboot, 2007.  

The new endeavors fit mainly into five major domains of activity, as follows:

1. Independent spiritual communities
These can be divided into two main categories: new independent minyanim (congregations led by volunteers); and rabbi-led ‘emergent communities’, (rabbis starting their own congregations), both of which are non-Orthodox by definition.  Orthodox Jews have always created these types of minyanim; but for this to be happening outside of Orthodoxy is new.  The quality of davening (prayer) within these new communities is often exceptionally powerful and moving, and most represent 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. See, for example, Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study by Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, Michelle Shain; S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar.

2. Social justice
There has been sizeable growth in new organizations committed to social justice work. See, Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community by Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar; Nathan Cummings Foundation, 2008.

It is striking that funding has grown so much that there may be 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 on the part of the volunteers, 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. She has made clear that the guiding purpose must be to serve the beneficiary. Of course, in so doing, there will be additional Jewish educational and inspirational benefits for the participants. This emphasis on the primacy of purpose is another defining feature of much of the innovative work that is currently taking place.

3. Jewish culture
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, to name just two illustrative phenomena. For others and for an assessment of the impact of Jewish cultural events, see Cultural Events and Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, UJA-Federation of New York, 2005.

4. New media
The growth of Jewish culture may partly be attributed to the expansion of the Internet and the decline in production costs, spawning a “pro-am” movement in cultural endeavors of all sorts.  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. 

5. Learning
Possibly the most significant learning initiative, which has had a huge impact on Jewish education in Britain, the US and across the Jewish world, is Limmud.  Its defining characteristics are that it allows Jews to take control of their own learning and Jewish life.  Any model of education that enables this age cohort to feel empowered in this way is likely to succeed.  Divrei Torah are becoming increasingly common, both as a practice and as a way to open meetings.

The ‘ABCD’ of young American Jews
Young people are distancing themselves from aspects of the Judaism of their elders, and responding to what they see as its shortcomings. Embodied within the endeavors outlined above is both a widely held, albeit unevenly shared, critique of conventional Jewish life. The Jewishly engaged but institutionally unaffiliated harbor four objections to the commonly available opportunities for affiliation, objections that may be encapsulated in the mnemonic “ABCD.”:

A = Alienating: The young people leading these 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 action.

B = Bland and Boring: This is how they view the Jewish lifestyle choices of the older generation. They see conventional leaders as too homogeneous, and disturbingly closed to diversity in social class and family status. The Judaism they seek is stimulating, upbeat, passionate and happy.

C = Coercive: The younger Jews find established Jewish institutions implicitly coercive – aiming to induce younger Jews to marry each other, to conceive Jewish babies and to support Israeli government policies of which they are ambivalent. By contrast, the initiatives they are creating are characterized by an emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth. 

D = Divisive: They find conventional Jewish institutions divisive, in that they are seen as dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from each other, Jewish turf from non-Jewish turf, and Jewish culture from putatively (and artificially defined) non-Jewish culture. In contrast, they seek diversity in people, culture, and geography.  They tend toward the post-denominational.  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 that happen in non-Jewish spaces, rather than exclusively Jewish ones.


Why is all this happening now?

1. Demography
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 such as synagogues and JCCs 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 – has created a vast pool of Jewish 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.  Being Jewish used to be a given, while being American was open to question. Today, being American is the given, while being Jewish is increasingly open to question.  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.  Part of the wide appeal of Barack Obama to non-Orthodox Jews amongst this group was because of his stand against exclusivism and judgmentalism, and his desire to break down barriers between black and white, Republican and Democrat, etc. 


The community may well need to ‘change or die’.  The change agenda requires 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, Director of Research for S3K, 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. The original reflection can be found at