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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Highly Engaged Young American Jews: Contrasts in Generational Ethos

Filed under: Antisemitism, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Changing Jewish Communities


  • Many engaged Jews under the age of forty emphasize, more than their elders and predecessors, Jewish purpose. They have created new minyanim, expanded social justice activities, engaged in various cultural endeavors, undertaken Judaic learning singly and in groups, and established a powerful and significant presence on the Internet and other new media.
  • Alongside these areas of new and sustained emphasis, even the most Jewishly engaged younger adults – not just the unengaged ones – in the United States express much-diminished sensitivity to matters of external threats to Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Intermarriage, anti-Semitism, Israel’s security, and campaigns to delegitimize Israel may strongly motivate older engaged American Jews. But such issues excite relatively little resonance among their younger counterparts, particularly those involved in innovative activities largely outside (or alongside) the longstanding established organizations.
  • Affiliation with a particular movement – denominational, ideological, or otherwise – is less prevalent for the younger generation of engaged American Jews. Conventional belonging to anything, not just things Jewish, is neither automatic nor self-justifying. Many young Jews have shifted their identity’s locus from people and organizations to purpose and principles. The larger society is characterized by customization, niche marketing, as well as a wider diversity of options. Not only is the menu of cultural elements longer, the ways in which options are assembled are more diverse and idiosyncratic.
  • Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards – such as in-marriage and support of Israel – as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to expressing higher Jewish purpose. In this and other ways, they extend the notion of the “sovereign self,” which was advanced and propounded as characterizing Baby Boomers, the parents of the current generation of highly engaged Jewish young adults, in The Jew Within[1] a decade ago.

Young and Engaged, Taking New Directions

“In the year 2000, together with Arnold Eisen, now chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS], I had written The Jew Within.[2] It explained how our generation, the Baby Boomers, differed from that of our parents who came of age during the Depression. After finishing the book, I honestly thought that American Judaism had taken individualism to the most extreme form possible. I couldn’t imagine that there could be even further growth of this version of American Jewish individualism, with its emphasis on autonomy, or control of one’s Jewish life; voluntarism, or freedom to make Jewish choices; ‘personalism,’ or the emphasis on the authority of personal meaning; antijudgmentalism, or an inclusive, welcoming attitude; and ‘journeyism,’ or the idea that we are all on Jewish journeys that deserve to be respected and supported.”

Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of American Jewry, has for over forty years undertaken studies of changing Jewish identities and communities and how they are shaped. Although most of his work has focused on Jews in the United States, his research has also ventured into other countries such as Israel, the former Soviet Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Cohen is a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

He observes, “But just a few years later I realized that the most creative and productive Jewish young adults today, basically the age of my children’s generation, were taking the Jewish ‘sovereign self’ even further. Since 2005, my scholarly work has focused on trying to understand this generation and, in effect, to explore how it differs from mine.[3] One small difference is that my generation – the one that pioneered radical Zionism, havurot [small religious fellowships], Jewish feminism, and Jewish student activism – got its start in our undergraduate years, and we continued mainly in our twenties. Many of the finest innovators in this current generation have been active during their middle twenties to middle thirties.”

Spiritual Communities

“In 2007, in my position as director of research for Synagogue 3000,[4] I worked with a number of colleagues to study new forms of spiritual community among younger American Jews.[5] We distinguished two types of communities that had evolved over the last few years. One type is the independent minyan [prayer quorum]. These are worship-centered communities with no paid rabbinical leadership, notwithstanding the rabbis and rabbinical students who may populate the ranks of worshippers. The other type of community is what we called ‘rabbi-led emergent’ communities. These are founded and led by paid rabbis, and are especially appealing to Jewish young adults and distinguished by an especially participatory culture, among other features. At the time, about eighty such communities – of both types – were functioning throughout the United States, with a few others scattered in other countries around the world.

“The independent-minyan phenomenon started in the year 2001 with the creation of Kehilat Hadar on New York’s Upper West Side.[6] Today this minyan attracts upward of two hundred worshippers on a Shabbat morning and has about three thousand largely young adults on its mailing list. Hadar services are marked by high-quality, spirited prayer and much communal interaction, both after and outside of services.[7] In a number of ways, its leaders try to differentiate their community from what they see as the spiritually unengaging and experientially passive suburban synagogues that most of them grew up in. In this, Hadar is not alone among the independent minyanim.

“Hadar has its own set of distinctive practices. One is that no d’var Torah [public comment on the text] can last longer than five minutes. They also do not announce page numbers for a variety of reasons. Doing so presumes all daveners [those engaged in prayer recitation] have to be on the same page, interrupts the natural rhythm of davening, and deprives the uninitiated of the possibility of learning the page number on their own or from their neighbors. On another, symbolic level, eschewing the announcement of page numbers may be a subtle way to differentiate their services from suburban congregational services whose model they seek to reject.

“My wife, Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, and I attended pre-Rosh Hashanah Slichot [penitential] prayers there, where we stood out as among the oldest worshippers in the room. That said, I was deeply impressed that several young people took pains to make sure that I knew where we were in the davening. It was indeed a highly spirited and deeply moving service, with three or four hundred good, musical, and hearty voices singing together. People really knew how to daven. Frankly, it was probably the best davening I’ve ever experienced.

“While Kehilat Hadar is the oldest and among the largest such communities, the dozens of others throughout the United States often attract between forty and sixty participants at Shabbat services. A particularly instructive example is the Mission minyan in San Francisco,[8] taking its name from the urban neighborhood where it meets. Its peculiar combination of cultural characteristics can be illustrated by an incident related by a colleague of mine who attended services one Shabbat morning. My wife traveled there by the BART train, the local subway, and brought a bottle of wine to contribute to the kiddush [sanctification] lunch after services. Minyan leaders politely declined her offer of the wine, concerned that they would derive benefit from wine that had been transported on Shabbat, a religious prohibition effectively honored only by the most traditionally religious. They told her, in effect, ‘We can’t use the wine but, of course, you’re welcome to join us and eat.’ They then pointed to two tables of food: one that was vegetarian only, and one that was both vegetarian and certified kosher under rabbinic supervision.

“Notably, almost all Conservative Jews and even the vast majority of Modern Orthodox Jews in the Bay area wouldn’t hesitate to eat vegetarian food. The separate table for hechshered [supervised] food – which only the more rigorously Orthodox Jews would require – would suggest that the Mission minyan is among the most religiously traditional islands in an otherwise highly nontraditional Bay Area Jewish community. Indeed, their website proclaims, ‘Our practice is guided by traditional halacha [Jewish law] and the values of gender equity and respect for variations in personal observance.’

“But here’s the kicker: their website also declares, ‘We are a highly participatory, queer-inclusive [emphasis added] community that strives to make as many people as possible feel welcome.’  It is remarkable that a community that is so stringent on kashrut [dietary laws] and Sabbath observance simultaneously announces that it is ‘queer-inclusive,’ drawing on the parlance of the gay community and its allies. Indeed, the Mission minyan is the only religious community in the world that proclaims its adherence both to halacha and to the principle of queer-inclusiveness, though other minyanim and communities certainly combine a commitment to Jewish law and welcoming LGBT Jews.

“This is not a point about one minyan alone. Rather, the larger point is that these minyanim are incredibly varied, notwithstanding their progressive politics, gender egalitarianism, and religious traditionalism. As a group, they emphasize different stylistic and cultural elements, in seemingly idiosyncratic combinations. Some of the most common elements are informal dress, fast-paced davening, proficient prayer leaders, gender egalitarianism, passionate singing, and divrei Torah that tend to relate to significant personal issues and concerns. That said, they vary widely in the parts of the service they include, the proficiency of service leaders, the use of movement, the melodies, the patterns of gender inclusiveness, the sociocultural demographics, and the emphasis on social justice and text-learning.

“An outstanding example of a ‘rabbi-led emergent’ community is provided by Ikar in Los Angeles,[9] founded by a small group of lay people led by Rabbi Sharon Brous who serves as the community’s spiritual leader. I’ve enjoyed very spirited davening there as well. Ikar combines high-quality davening with learning and a strong social justice emphasis. The latter is central to Brous’s approach to Judaism and also derives in part from the years when Daniel Sokatch, now of the New Israel Fund,[10] headed the Progressive Jewish Alliance[11] in close conjunction with Ikar, of which he was a leading member and provided major support for Rabbi Brous. I once suggested to Sharon that she consider taking her extraordinary social justice pulpit – she’s an outstanding darshanit! [sermon-giver, or Torah-commentator] – to the national level. Her reply was, ‘If I were going to work on something, it would be prayer.’ That surprised me, if only because she’s such an effective and passionate advocate for what I’d call Torah-based social justice involvement.

“On a personal level, Rabbi Brous, like many of the leaders of these communities, is JTS-trained and traditionally observant. For example, she prohibits the use of musical instruments at Shabbat services. What’s more, she walks to shul on Shabbat in stark contrast with a good number of JTS-trained rabbis of an older generation. But, notwithstanding the traditional observance patterns of its rabbi, Ikar is very open to engaging members who are not punctilious about Sabbath observance.

“Of course, the drive for what we may call spiritual renewal in American Judaism takes forms other than newly fashioned communities. I’m thinking of such efforts as Mayyim Hayyim[12] in the Boston area, a mikveh[13]-plus-education project that aims ‘to reclaim and reinvent one of our most ancient Jewish rituals – immersion in the mikveh – for contemporary spiritual uses.’ It’s of some note that these innovations cluster disproportionately, given local Jewish-population size, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston.

“In 1968, Boston was also the location of Havurat Shalom, credited with pioneering the havurah movement. It was in the late sixties and early seventies that we last witnessed a period of efflorescence of these kinds of self-directed worship-study-community groups. The havurah movement both stimulated and presaged lasting social and cultural change in American Jewish life. Among its aftereffects: the increased accessibility of the rabbis, and as to cantors, the decline of aria-driven chazanut [cantillation], and the supplanting of such cantors with lay prayer leaders. At HUC [Hebrew Union College] where I work, for example, the cantorial curriculum has been retooled to make sure cantors can lead singing and function in the popularist mode that the havurah movement championed. We see also the rise of Jewish feminism and flowering of gender egalitarianism; and the emphasis on text study. The havurah movement helped spur (and anticipated) what we now call greater ‘empowerment’ of the congregant, in contrast with leaving control of the services entirely in the hands of the rabbi and cantor. All these developments should be seen as cultural precursors of today’s independent minyanim and rabbi-led emergent communities.

“Since their heyday in the seventies, the havurot have declined in number. However, the National Havurah Committee[14] lists over one hundred communities on its website and sponsors an annual Summer Institute, testifying to their enduring presence. In short, the cultural impact of the havurah movement – and the large Jewish student movement and counterculture of which it was part – has been profound, widespread, and continuous.

“And to all this must be added the impact on personnel: a good number of today’s most influential rabbis, educators, communal leaders, and thinkers got their start in the havurah movement, in the Jewish student movement and counterculture. And therein lies an important lesson for assessing the significance of what some have called the ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ in Jewish life.[15] Culturally emergent trends today can become culturally embedded patterns tomorrow. And young Jewish leaders – with God’s help and good fortune – become middle-aged and even elderly Jewish leaders decades later.”

New Cultural Expressions

Cohen observes: “In addition to building dynamic davening-centered communities, younger-adult Jews are engaged in many cultural activities that they or their predecessors couldn’t, and didn’t, do before, largely because the cost of producing and distributing cultural expressions has dropped dramatically in recent years. Significantly, long-established record companies, newspapers, book publishers, and major film studios are all painfully aware of the new economics of cultural production and distribution. As more independent artists, musicians, journalists, writers, and filmmakers are making and marketing their wares, often to very specialized audiences, we see parallels among Jews.

“YouTube has become the repository of tens of thousands of Jewish-oriented video clips – some humorous, others serious, and many connected with Jewish events and used to connect with interested parties far and wide. I’m sure that not all observers would see these clips as ‘culture’ in the artistic sense, but they certainly have expanded and enriched contemporary Jewish culture in the way that social scientists use the term. More conventionally, we have seen the expansion of low-cost Jewish-oriented films, some of them originating in Israel. Three Israeli-made films have been nominated for Oscars, reflecting, I think, the maturation of an international Jewish film-making culture extending far and wide.

“There are now Jewish drama groups, and drama skills have entered into various reaches of prayer and Jewish education. In this realm, a prime example is Storahtelling, or as it describes itself: ‘using an innovative fusion of scholarship, storytelling, performing arts and new media, our programs reclaim the narratives and traditions that define Jewish life yet have failed to adapt to modern times.'[16]

“Of course, one cannot ignore the vast expansion in Jewish musical production, musical events, and audiences. Here I can think of no better piece of evidence than the success of JDub,[17] a not-for-profit music business started by two men in their twenties. Over the past few years, the agency has discovered, developed, and promoted numerous musical artists of whom Matisyahu is probably the best-known. JDub’s mission statement is emblematic of many features of the ethos of young engaged Jews in the United States:

[Our] mission is twofold: to create community among young Jews, their friends, and significant others by promoting proud, authentic Jewish voices in popular culture; and to offer young adults opportunities to connect with their Judaism in the secular world in which they live. JDub believes in the power of joyous Jewish moments, in an inclusive, non-coercive, peer-to-peer environment.  JDub engages hundreds of thousands of young Jews every year through CDs, events, online communities and conversations, and holiday celebrations.

“This younger generation has created a whole series of new magazines. I am thinking of the very ironic, iconoclastic, and irreverent Heeb magazine,[18] as well as the serious forum for ideas on culture, politics, and spirit found in Zeek (disclosure: I’m on the editorial board),[19] whose mission and approach remind me of Response, the journal that I and others edited in the seventies and eighties. Older philanthropists and younger journalists stand behind Tablet,[20] a year-old venture funded by the Avi Chai Foundation, and, with a bit of stretch, one can even see the venerable Forward as combining established support with the energy and independence of young-adult Jewish journalists.

“I should say a word about Jewish spirituality, which is on the rise also among young Jews. Relative to non-Jews, Jewish spirituality is still in its infancy. But in 2009, also for Synagogue 3000, my colleague Lawrence Hoffman and I surveyed both young Jews and their elders[21] and found increased levels of spiritual interest among younger people, though spiritual levels among Jews significantly trailed those among American Christians. Two demographic trends drove these upward. One is the rise in Orthodoxy, as Orthodox Jews report much higher levels of spirituality than others. The other trend is the rise in intermarriage, as Jews who are married to non-Jews or who are the children of mixed parentage report somewhat higher levels of interest in spirituality than non-Orthodox Jews with no Christians in their immediate families.

“Given the anticipated growth in Orthodoxy and in intermarriage, for quite different reasons, we can also anticipate spiritual language and interests trending upward for the young-adult Jewish population as well. Among the most engaged non-Orthodox young Jews, who are not particularly the progeny of mixed marriages or married to non-Jews, spiritual interests are also trending upward for different reasons. The appeal of spiritual practices (e.g., yoga, meditation) and Eastern religions, while small, does testify to stirrings of a spiritual awakening among segments of the engaged population. So too does the rise of Jewish healing practices and centers, as well as the growing appeal of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality[22] headed by Rabbi Rachel Cowan.”

Learning Texts and Repairing the World

“As far as learning is concerned, a third major area of innovation in this generation, one interesting phenomenon is that people want resources from which to make choices about how to learn. Perhaps the most visible events are the Limmud Festivals occurring all over the world where both ‘amateurs’ and educators, rabbis and the not-so-educated, come together for two to five days of classes and workshops, in free-flowing gatherings reaching people of all ages. With its first incarnation in 1982 in England, currently upward of forty Limmud gatherings are held around the world, with about half a dozen in the United States.

“Of course, all Jewish learning is not encompassed by these Limmud phenomena, impressive as they may be. To take another outstanding example, in 2006, Kehilat Hadar (or Hadar Community), described above, gave rise to Mechon Hadar (Hadar Institute),[23] a Jewish learning endeavor led initially by Rabbis Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker, and Shai Held – all friends for many years. Initially, Mechon Hadar sponsored a yeshiva of adult text study only during the summer. With additional funds they have grown to a year-round yeshiva, where lay people come to study. Rabbi Kaunfer is a great organizer who takes huge pride in helping people – in particular non-Orthodox lay people – attain competence in classic Jewish texts, and in an environment that emphasizes personal spiritual growth, the application of texts to social justice initiatives, and a gender-egalitarian framework. His long-term vision, if I understand it correctly, is to see many such yeshivas all over the world, but especially in the United States.

“Beyond these endeavors, young people also buy, and presumably read, many Jewish books, both fiction and nonfiction. We’ve seen the emergence of a Jewish blog culture on the Internet paralleling similar developments in the society at large.  My research shows that many young people are very committed – or at least they say they are committed – to strengthen themselves Jewishly, for which the resources are now easily accessible.

“Indeed, if there’s a common theme that runs through the work of numerous young social innovators – such as those I’ve met at PresenTense[24]  – it’s the emphasis on using new tools, culture, and new digital media to bring Jewish learning and Jewish meaning to the Jewishly unengaged or Judaically uninformed. In essence, we have a cohort of entrepreneurial teachers, who use contexts other than the classroom and teaching materials other than classic texts, to reach far out to audiences they haven’t met, with the hope of enticing Jewishly uninitiated people to gain more appreciation of the resources of Jewish life, culture, and wisdom.

“Fourth, there has been a marked growth in social activism, embracing a wide variety of issue-focused organizations, and a network of philanthropists supporting their efforts. In 2008, Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar wrote an impressive analysis of the field, entitled “Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community.” The monograph traced the huge growth of social justice activities and tried to come up with a strategic plan to coordinate all these efforts.[25]

“The groups they studied cover a variety of concerns and issue areas: immigration, housing, literacy, Third World, civil liberties, and reproductive rights. The two researcher-activists – both have long been engaged in the work of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community – came to the conclusion that while it’s impossible to impose a coordinated agenda on the Jewish social justice cottage industry, some measure of collaboration among the major players (philanthropists, activists, thought leaders, etc.) might nevertheless be possible.

“Among the earlier arrivals on the Jewish social justice scene (1999) is the Progressive Jewish Alliance [PJA], physically situated in the same building with Ikar. Illustrative of its interests, its website reports, ‘We fight for economic justice by educating Jews about our obligation to stand with the working poor, and then we organize the Jewish community to join in campaigns to improve working conditions and secure a living wage for low-wage workers.’ PJA is one of several locally based social justice endeavors that have expanded significantly over the last decade. The drive has extended to the Orthodox world as exemplified by several developments of which Uri L’Tzedek is among the most emblematic. Uri L’Tzedek sees itself as ‘an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression…[that] empowers the Jewish community towards creating a more just world.'[26]

“Probably the most prominent and influential body in this field is the American Jewish World Service [AJWS] led by Ruth Messinger, who assumed leadership in 1998. AJWS has evolved into much more than a grant-making agency for social change in developing countries. Although itself not a creation of young-adult Jews, AJWS serves as a prime breeding ground for emerging social justice activists. For years AJWS has been taking young rabbinical students and others on service trips to developing countries where they not only serve, but study Jewish teachings with the likes of Prof. David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. After ten days of combining service with learning, they come back well connected with each other and more deeply committed to social justice work.

“These are among AJWS’s many service programs of different lengths, open to people seventeen and older. Most participants are young, and do serious physical labor for a week or a summer or a year after college. The leaders of these groups are Jewishly knowledgeable, use a specially designed service learning curriculum, and help young people grapple with critical issues. AJWS sends about 450 people a year on these various programs.

“Other major players in this field – beyond the ‘establishment’ agencies of which the Joint Distribution Committee [JDC] is clearly the most prominent – include Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, with its live-in houses for Jewish social activists; the RAC, or Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington; and, not least, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Jewish Funds for Justice, two of the prime and ongoing funders of work in this area.”

Internet Community

“The fifth area of innovation involves the Internet as both a place and a tool for Jewish creativity and connection. Twenty years ago there was absolutely no Jewish life on the Internet for a very good reason: it didn’t exist. Today, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, SMS’s, and more are woven into the texture of everyday life, especially that of younger people, and including that of engaged young Jews.

“There was a time when one wouldn’t consider something published unless it was printed on paper. Today, if one doesn’t get one’s writing up on the web, if it’s only printed on paper and not available for downloading, it simply doesn’t count and has little or no communication value.

“It would be stretching matters to conceive of ‘new media’ as a separate dimension of Jewish innovation – alongside spiritual community, culture, learning, and social justice. But it is equally impossible to ignore its pervasive impact on all manner of contemporary Jewish creativity and communication. The ‘new media’ facilitate, influence, and shape Jewish life, and they are the locus of new forms of Jewish expression.”

The Establishment Lends a Hand – and More

“This wave of innovation owes much to decades of training, education, and network-development funded in large part by mega-philanthropists and, not least, the state of Israel and the Jewish Agency. The leading innovators often report numerous personal experiences as participants in programs and fellowships with the names of rich philanthropists attached to them – such as Bronfman Fellows, Wexner Fellows, Dorot Fellows, and so on – as well as periods of extensive study in Israel, usually for one or two semesters.

“On a more contemporary plane, several philanthropic efforts have been supporting people and nurturing new projects. Reflecting a partnership between older Jewish philanthropists and creative young people the age of their children or grandchildren, these projects, in effect, use the philanthropists’ money to help young innovators do Jewish things that aim at getting other Jews to do Jewish things. Lynn Schusterman’s ROI program comes to mind, as do numerous efforts funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies such as Reboot, 21/64, and Slingshot, an endeavor to recognize annually fifty of the most notable and promising innovative projects, most of which have been started by U.S. Jews in their twenties and thirties.

“A number of projects seek out new or somewhat evolved innovative projects to offer seed money and technical assistance. The pioneer in this field, founded ten years ago, is Bikkurim,[27] with offices at the Jewish Federations of North America. Since their periods of incubation, several Bikkurim projects have flourished and made a name for themselves. Examples include Hazon, which is environmentally oriented; Encounter; Kehilat Hadar; JDub Records; Mechon Hadar; Limmud New York; Storahtelling; and Uri L’Tzedek (a very impressive line-up, to say the least). The domain of agencies offering support services for innovators, startups, and not-so-startups now includes Jumpstart in Los Angeles, Upstart in San Francisco, and, for artists, the Six Points Fellowship funded by the UJA-Federation of New York.

“A variety of efforts to found communities and engagement efforts don’t fit the foregoing models of spiritual communities. Examples are Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor initiative[28] and the recently established string of about thirty Moishe Houses[29] around the world. Both depend heavily on funding from older philanthropists, and rely heavily on the work of younger people reaching out to their age-peers.

“With the help of the Marcus Foundation, Next Dor promises long- term results on a very large scale, through its targeting of that segment of the young population looking for long-term relationships and commitment to issues of purpose and meaning – rather than simply programming for social and recreational ends. It is on the verge of establishing a national network of Next Dor synagogues that will sponsor engagement personnel working with young-adult Jews, by training synagogues for the transitional work necessary to sustain Judaism into another generation.”

A New and Different Generation

Cohen observes that this generation’s ethos contains a critique of prevailing forms of Jewish life. “This critique can be expressed in a memorable acronym: A-B-C-D. A stands for alienation, in that younger Jews feel alienated from conventional and longstanding Jewish institutions, customs, practices, and so forth. B refers to the sense that they find established institutional life bland and boring. It seems predictable in tone and content and populated by a predictable demographic of upper-middle-class, middle-aged, in-married, family people. C refers to the coercive features of Jewish life, especially its strong preference for in-marriage and seemingly unquestioning support for the state of Israel. And D stands for divisive. Younger Jews see their parents’ generation sharply dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from other Jews – such as along denominational lines – putatively Jewish culture from non-Jewish culture, and Jewish institutional turf from non-Jewish turf.

“The Jewish-turf issue is especially revealing. The feeling among many younger Jewish adults is that if, say, the Jewish rapper Matisyahu were playing at a JCC [Jewish Community Center], they might wonder if the concert is going to be any good, and what kind of crowd will show up, itself an element in determining entertainment value. But if Matisyahu plays at general-purpose performance spaces, such as Town Hall or Webster Hall in New York, then it’s likely to be a better performance. There’d be a much more diverse span of Jews in attendance, and the added benefit of many non-Jews attending, making it all-around a better, hipper audience. So there is a sense that some Jewish life is sometimes better conducted on a non-Jewish turf.

“In response to their alienation from conventional Jewish institutions, younger Jews seek creative autonomy, often seeing themselves as social entrepreneurs creating Jewish life and culture for those who share their tastes and interests. In response to the perception of blandness in the older generation, they are keen on promoting diversity in people and cultural elements. In response to the sense of coercion around such matters as Israel and in-marriage, they seek to act nonjudgmentally, to allow each person’s search for Jewish meaning to determine the value of their actions. And in response to divisiveness in the Jewish community, they abjure boundaries to the participation of non-Jews, they transcend denominational identities, intentionally integrate cultural elements from outside of Jewish life, and display an interest in conducting some of their Jewish lives in non-Jewish spaces, using the facilities of churches for prayer, or cafés for Purim parties, or concert halls for musical performances.

“I am struck by how these stances did not originate with this generation, but in a way recapitulate much of Jewish development since the advent of modernity. Each wave of Jewish innovation sees itself as at once alienated from its predecessors, bringing more excitement to Jewish life, setting new norms, and overcoming unnecessary boundaries. I’m sure the founders of B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, Young Israel, and the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] all saw themselves that way. Certainly, my generation saw its elders’ Jewish ways as alien, bland, and boring, and coercive around the wrong issues. We advanced a do-it-yourself Judaism, railed against the conventional politics of the pro-Israel advocates of our day and the diplomatically oriented, sha-shtill [keep quiet] approach to advocacy for Soviet Jewry, engaged in a renewed emphasis on community and learning, and launched an assault on the Jewish-related divisions of our day – the control of organized life by the most affluent and the control of religious life by men.”

The Jewish Collective as a Means, Not an End

“Today’s young people have some problems with what I see as four critical dimensions of the Jewish collective: in-marriage, institutions, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood.

“On each one of those levels, the inclination among younger engaged Jews, at best, is to instrumentalize each dimension, to see them as a means to some other Jewish purpose, but not as altogether worthy and compelling ends in themselves. They don’t see the act of marrying a Jew as inherently important, but valuable only insofar as it enhances the possibility of leading a more intense Jewish family life. They place little value on joining Jewish organizations per se, seeing such acts of affiliation as meaningful only if they are connected with one or another worthy cause rather than fulfilling an age-old dictum to be engaged in the affairs of the organized community. They see supporting the state of Israel as obligatory only insofar as the state acts in accordance with highest principles of democracy, tolerance, human rights, and Jewish ethical values as they understand them. They see no automatic necessity to connect with the fictive entity of ‘the Jewish people,’ and instead see other people as even more needy of the type of support that Jews are best positioned to provide.”

More Distant from Israel

Cohen stresses again that traditional forms of participation in Israel-related communal activities are of low intrinsic value for younger engaged Jews and are seen as optional at best. “A fairly representative figure in this generation once told me: ‘My support for Israel isn’t guaranteed. I support Israel insofar as it represents the Jewish values that I hold dear. When it deviates from those values it doesn’t deserve my support.’ His response contrasts with what may be called ‘critical Zionists’ of my generation. For us, the protective impulse and the corrective impulse go hand-in-hand. The urges to defend Israel and to take issue with its policies support and reinforce each other. For Jews under forty, the obvious shortcomings in official Israeli policies – be they related to settlements, or human rights, or women’s rights, or the place of non-Orthodox Judaism – produce distancing, alienation, and disengagement.

“One also has to understand that this generation distinguishes between ‘Israel engagement’ and being ‘pro-Israel.’ Many of the younger generation are as actively engaged with Israel, if not more so, than the older one. In fact, most young Jewish leaders – if that’s the right term – have not only visited Israel, but they’ve spent at least four months or more studying or volunteering there. Experiences that are now sponsored by the MASA program have been a crucible for young Jewish leadership development for the last decade and more. So, unquestionably, as a group, younger engaged Jews in the United States are not only Jewishly engaged, they are also highly Israel-engaged.

“Yet, at the same time, they often resist being seen as ‘pro-Israel’ in terms of supporting Israel politically. For me, ‘pro-Israel’ means you get involved with Israel, even if it involves opposing settlement expansion or denouncing Israeli authorities for repressing expressions of Masorti and Reform Judaism in Israel. For American Jews under forty, ‘pro-Israel’ means supporting the misguided, mistaken, and sometimes immoral policies of the Israeli government. That is how they interpret it, and therefore they have a problem with calling themselves ‘pro-Israel’ or associating with ‘pro-Israel’ advocacy groups.

“Curiously and significantly, out of twenty-eight Bikkurim Fellowships that have been awarded since 2000, only one project, Encounter, focuses principally on American Jews’ relationship to Israel. A scan of projects listed in the last five years by Slingshot similarly finds hardly any Israel-focused innovations. While the United States has seen a surfeit of new Israel-advocacy groups over the last decade, as well as the ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ J Street, none of these efforts entailed an initiative of young-adult American Jews (with the possible exception of Jerusalem’s PresenTense). In all instances of newly created Israel-related groups in the last decade, middle-aged and older donors and social entrepreneurs took the lead as founders, sometimes handing over creative control to younger people.

“The very minimal engagement with Israel on the part of today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs stands in sharp contrast with the Jewish counterculture of the late sixties and early seventies. True, we had our share of what we called ‘havurah Bundists’ – essentially, devotees of prayer and study who had little time for Israel-related concerns. But, for the most part, Israel played a huge role in our lives and in the social networks we created and inhabited. I don’t believe I could make the same statement about today’s patchwork of innovators and innovative projects.”

Little Concern for Jewish Security Issues

“Connected with the distancing from Israel is the lack of resonance with Jewish security issues. One of the hallmarks of this younger Jewish group is the diminished sensitivity to matters of external threat. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is a premier institution in charting and addressing matters of threat to Jews and Jewish life, in Europe or in Israel. In all these contexts, we’re talking about various formulations of Jews in distress.

“In the main, this whole subject is of relatively little interest to younger engaged Jews today, even as it continues to resonate with a wide swath of less Jewishly educated age-peers in the United States. Threats to Israel, remembering the Holocaust, responding to anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist attacks, and so forth are just not as compelling to this group of people as they are to their elders.

“Among many of the innovative leaders, the attitude is, ‘At best, responding to threat is just not where our hearts are. We’re about providing Jewish meaning and access to Jewish life and tradition. Others, whom we may respect, do Jewish defense.’

“It’s as if we have three Jewish ministries or super-departments in Jewish communal life. We have a Ministry of Defense, a Ministry of Education and Culture, and a Ministry of Health and Human Services. Personally, I’m a member in good standing, I hope, of the Ministry of Culture and Education – all my work and passions are about the changing contours of Jewish identity and community. The Anti-Defamation League, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, AIPAC, and J Street belong to the Ministry of Defense – notwithstanding their differences, they’re all more interested in a secure future for Jews and Israel. Other agencies and individuals aim at helping Jews in need; they may support hospitals, or geriatric care, and other communal services. The JDC, for example, is a leading element in what we may call the Jewish Ministry of Health and Human Services.

“Thus, the absenting of younger engaged Jews from involvement in defense of Israel is only partly due to their disaffection with major Israeli policies. It also has to do with their definition of their function in Jewish communal life, as well as a diminished sense of the automatic claims of Jewish kinship. In Prof. Daniel Elazar’s terms,[30] they’ve come to define their Jewish commitments as more a matter of consent than kinship.”

Affiliation with a Difference

“I have often quipped that American Jews inevitably affiliate – just as soon as they give birth to a seven-year-old Jewish baby. That quip happens to be inaccurate for these younger Jews because, in truth, they are already affiliating, even before babies and even before getting married. For non-Orthodox Jews in America, they are truly exceptional, a virtual elite of Jewish life today.

“But with all their high rates of affiliation, these young American Jewish elites, as I call them – they’d hate the term, just as they reject the characterization of ‘leader’ – have deeply held views that contrast with those of the more conventionally affiliated. I’ve already mentioned their qualified views of in-marriage, even as it turns out that 96 percent of the married members of the independent minyanim are married to Jews. In-marriage is a reality, but it is not an explicit ideal. So, too, with supporting Israel and communal affiliation. These are not inherently valued, but rather merit loyalty that is tentative and involvement that is instrumental.

“The nonconventional approaches to affiliation can be seen in their discomfort with the inherited denominational identities – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform being the most common. Significantly, the largest-growth denomination in American Jewish life is ‘just Jewish.’ I have started including ‘postdenominational’ as a response choice in my surveys, though it must be noted that ‘postdenominational’ is an affiliation choice of the more engaged, while ‘just Jewish’ is more often selected by the least engaged in Jewish life.[31]

“In looking at ‘denomination raised’ and ‘denomination now,’ we find fascinating patterns of change among younger engaged Jews in the United States. Only among the Orthodox do the numbers hold from childhood to young adulthood. At the same time, Conservative and Reform affiliation are clearly dropping. Many of those who were raised Conservative or Reform are now nondenominational or postdenominational. They feel that denominational identities divide Jews against Jews, while providing little inherent value these days.”

The Sovereign Self Extended

“Given my own background and the way I view such matters, I regard the current younger generations as extending the principles of the Jewish sovereign self that Arnold Eisen and I first described in The Jew Within. They are extending and elaborating the major elements we discerned: autonomy, volunteerism, personalism, nonjudgmentalism, and journeyism. As I said earlier, I just could not imagine anyone taking those principles any further. It never occurred to me that the next generation would, albeit with firm and passionate Jewish commitment, take the principles of individualism and sovereign self even further than we had observed among Boomer types in the mid-nineties.

“They expect that they and their friends will move in and out among evolving options in Jewish life. They have little need for what they regard as outmoded notions of ‘parties’ in Jewish life – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, but feminist, Zionist, liberal, and conservative as well. America generally, and Jews there as well, have moved firmly beyond the age of ideology.

“Ten years ago, when we finished our book, I know that both Arnie Eisen and I wondered: how does one create a community for and with such highly individualized and individualistic sovereign-self Jews? Well, apparently a good number of younger engaged Jewish adults have figured it out. In part it means creating communities that respect individuals, and allow very diverse people to feel comfortable together.

“At the heart of my work is observing and characterizing this phenomenon. It is crucial for the Jewish people to understand it.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld** 

*     *     *


* This work benefited from years of colleagueship and collaboration with Prof. Jack Wertheimer, Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Prof. Shaul Kelner, Prof. Ari Y. Kelman, and Prof. Sarah Benor. Prof. Larry Hoffman of HUC-JIR provided many valuable comments on an earlier version of this manuscript for which he provided a very close read and review. Howard Weisband also closely reviewed earlier drafts and gave valuable advice throughout. Thanks also to Shifra Bronznick of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, Sharon Brous of Ikar, Marion Lev-Cohen, Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar, Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, and Mordecai Walfish of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner.

** With many thanks to Chanah Shapiro for her assistance in preparing this interview.

[1] Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, e.g., Mara Benjamin, Steven M. Cohen, and Jack Wertheimer, “Peoplehood in the Next Gen,” JFL Media, October 2006,

Steven M. Cohen, “Changes in American Jewish Identities: From Normative Constructions to Aesthetic Understandings – Interview with Steven M. Cohen,” Changing Jewish Communities 30, 16 March 2008,

Steven M. Cohen, “The New Jewish Organizing,” Sh’ma Institute, February 2010,

Steven M. Cohen and Sam Abrams, “Israel off Their Minds: The Diminished Place of Israel in the Political Thinking of Young Jews,” Berman Jewish Policy Archive, 27 October 2008,

Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain, “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study,” Synagogue 3000 and Mechon Hadar, November 2007,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Cultural Events and Jewish Identities: Young Adult Jews in New York,” UJA-Federation of New York, February 2005,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” Jewish Identity Project of Reboot, 2007,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating, and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives,” 21/64, 2007,

Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, “Uncoupled: How Our Singles Are Reshaping Jewish Engagement,” Jewish Identity Project of Reboot, 2008,

Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People?,” American Jewish Committee, June 2006,


[5] Cohen, Landres, Kaunfer, and Shain, “Emergent Jewish Communities.” See also Elie Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights,  2010).


[7] See Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism.






[13] Ritual bath.


[15] Carin Aviv, “Haskalah 2.0,” Jumpstart Report 2 (with JESNA and The Jewish Federations of North America), Summer 2010,

Maya Bernstein, “Back to School,” EJewishPhilanthropy, Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), 30 April 2010, 15-17,

Felicia Herman and Shawn Landres, “Seeding the Ecosystem of the Jewish Future,” Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Spring 2009, 10,

Shaul Kelner, “A Lexicon in Flux,” Josh Rolnick, Sh’ma Institute, February 2010,

Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation “The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape,” 2009,

“Slingshot 09-10: A Resource Guide for Jewish Innovation,” The Slingshot Fund, 21/64, 2009,






[21] Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence A. Hoffman, “How Spiritual Are America’s Jews?,” Synagogue 3000, March 2009,



[24] A Jerusalem-based initiative that sees itself as “a largely volunteer-run community of innovators and entrepreneurs, thinkers and leaders, creators and educators, from around the world, who are investing their ideas and energy to revitalize the established Jewish community,”

[25] Shifra Bronznick and D. S. Goldenhar, “Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community,” Nathan Cummings Foundation, March 2008.






[31] Steven M. Cohen, “Non-Denominational and Post-Denominational: Two Tendencies in American Jewry,” Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Summer 2005: 7-8,

*     *     *

Steven M. Cohen is research professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner (, and research director for Synagogue 3000 ( In 1992, he moved to Israel and taught for fourteen years at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With Arnold Eisen he wrote The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Indiana University Press, 2000). He is also the coauthor with Charles Liebman of Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experiences (Yale University Press, 1990).