April 20, 2006
The Second American Jewish Revolution
The past 20 years have been marked by the single largest growth of new Jewish organizations -- well, at least since 1880, when the first defining period of American Judaism began.
You can rightly call it a major American Jewish revolution that is now under way.
This modern revolution embodies some telling differences. For one thing, Jewish leaders of the past emphasized a common agenda and personal giving. Leaders of the new revolution frequently reject both. For another, the first revolution centered on the primacy of core institutions and their leaders to define and direct a shared agenda. This new community model focuses on the individual as the primary agent of change.
Wars, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel and the movement of Jews to countries of freedom and security shaped the first revolution in Jewish communal life. Now, individuals are able to re-invent the idea of "community" on their own terms.
To look at it another way, Jews in the earlier period sought to combine traditional Jewish organizational practices and communal values, along with a 19th-century emphasis on American progressivism. This new wave, by contrast, reflects the themes and values of 21st century globalism and the individualistic impulses associated with Generation-Yers. And this new generation is empowered by computers, teleconferencing and production networks -- all drawing upon the energy and creativity of people operating as entrepreneurs, who are recasting and challenging traditional relationships and networks.
As Thomas Friedman suggests in his latest book, "The World Is Flat, A Brief History of the 21st Century" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) "meaning" is now constructed by the individual -- no longer framed by institutions or the general culture. As a result, traditional social and religious boundaries, as well as specific ideologies, are seen as flexible. The result is that individuals and groups are able to integrate previously separated cultural practices and religious rituals into something that provides personal expression.
The number and diversity of modern Jewish organizations that have sprung into being is breathtaking.
There are political groups with highly directed agendas, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (1985), the National Jewish Democratic Council (1990), Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (1993), Pro-Israel (1990) and UN Watch (1993). And there are institutions targeting specific social and humanitarian causes, including hunger, such as Mazon (1985), or international service: American Jewish World Service (1985) and the local Jewish World Watch (2005). Other categories of activity have included: National Jewish Coalition on Literacy, founded in 1997; and Jewish Outreach Institute, founded in 1987.
An interesting phenomenon of this period is the emergence of specialized membership groupings, such as the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews (1985), Jewish Children's Adoption Network (1990), International Association of Genealogical Societies (1988) and Jewish Genetic Disease Consortium (2000).
Over the past 20 years, several hundred national organizations and Jewish periodicals and newspapers have been created.
There's also significant activity among older line groups to re-invent themselves in order to survive. The Jewish Toronto Tomorrow initiative represents one such creative approach by the federation world "to capture the imagination of new philanthropists," said Ted Sokolsky, president of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Such efforts are under way across the United States -- all designed to attract a new and younger donor base, as well as to offer traditional federation supporters alternative ways to give.
This revolution has been inspired and supported by a core of megadonors. They have underwritten such efforts as Taglit- Birthright Israel, Project STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal), the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and more recently, a collaborative initiative to establish Reboot, an outreach program.
In fact, a whole new communal lingo, which aligns Jewish ideas with contemporary culture -- a "new Jewish cool" -- has developed that challenges the earlier federation-centered vocabulary. It updates the "we are one" theme by accepting that "we are also individuals." This new encounter with community is highly entrepreneurial, experimental -- and sometimes elitist.
And sometimes, these modern efforts collapse, as with the Joshua Venture, an initiative to fund and assist emerging Jewish projects. For that matter, the organizations of the first revolution, including the federation system, will inevitably decline if they cannot adapt to changing times and modes.
The evolution of the revolution is a work in progress -- one of enormous and lasting importance.
Steven Windmueller directs the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. This essay is drawn from research compiled for his treatise, "The Second American Jewish Revolution."