Just How, Exactly, Has American Judaism Changed in Recent Years?
What are the latest demographic and societal trends in American Judaism? Jonathan D. Sarna is here to tell us.
Professor Sarna is the author or editor of more than 30 books, including his award-winning American Judaism: A History, updated in 2019. He teaches American Jewish history at Brandeis University and is director of its Schusterman Center for Israel Studies; he’s also the past president of the Association for Jewish Studies and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.
In other words, when it comes to American Judaism, Professor Sarna knows his stuff. We sat down with him to talk about American Judaism today.
ReformJudaism.org: How has the makeup of the American Jewish community changed since the first edition of American Judaism 15 years ago?
Professor Sarna: The Jewish community has become much more diverse, inclusive, and variegated. The idea of a typical Jewish type has disappeared in the Reform movement, and more broadly in American synagogues throughout the country.
When I wrote the original manuscript, for example, I could not have imagined how quickly American Jews would move to be inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. There are more Jews of Color today, too, making up an estimated 12 to 15 percent of American Jewry. And we’re seeing more inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming Jews, as well as people with disabilities and their families.
A final development is the influx of new immigrants. Today, about 14 percent of the Jewish community is foreign-born, including Russian, Persian, Hispanic, South African, Sephardi, Mizrahi, and Israeli Jews.
What does it portend for the future of American Jewry that a large percentage of young Jews now describe themselves as “Jews of no religion”?
Religion has long been cyclical in the United States, with ups and downs, revivals, and backsliding.
The first edition of American Judaism appeared in the immediate aftermath of a revival, when young people were more religious than their parents. Today we're seeing the opposite.
But given the long history of American Jewish life, I think we will see another revival, and its seeds are being sown in the experimentation and innovation happening today.
You write that the American Jewish community is in a state of demographic decline. What are the causes and consequences of this development?
A major cause is the low fertility rate of the non-Orthodox community. Reform Jews have a replacement level of about 1.6 to 1.7 children per family. Large numbers of Jews never marry, many couples elect not to have children, and those who marry very late are more likely to experience fertility issues.
This demographic decline has had a significant impact on our Jewish institutions, many of which were created with families with children in mind. That's certainly true of synagogues, which have had to adjust to serving a generation of singles between college age and their late thirties, a distinctive cohort that didn’t exist in the past.
It’s important to remember that demography is not destiny. In 1935, a famous article in the American Sociological Review predicted “the total eclipse of the Jewish church in America.” By the 1950s, though, that pessimism gave way to a baby boom – an era of unprecedented growth for Jewish institutions without parallel in the 20th century.
The question is: Will history repeat itself, or will the current demographic decline have a more permanent impact?
American Jews have achieved disproportionate levels of success; at the same time, antisemitic incidents have mushroomed. What do you make of this apparent “best of times, worst of times” scenario?
In the 1920s, Jews moved up economically and achieved great security. But they experienced virulent antisemitism, much worse than anything we know today. Historians still speak both of the “roaring twenties” and of the “tribal twenties,” a reminder that then, as now, prosperity and hatred marched hand in hand.
In the 1950s, another time of Jewish prosperity, there were many attacks on synagogues, including – most famously, but not uniquely – the bombing of the Temple in Atlanta.
That kind of violence against Jews seemed to be behind us – until Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and other recent hate crimes against Jews burst into the headlines and surprised us.
While such attacks are certainly cause for great concern, we should keep in mind that most Americans continue to view Jews “warmly” or “very warmly”; only 9 percent do not. According to the Pew Survey, in fact, Judaism actually ranks among the most respected of all American religions.
How do you think synagogues offer hope for the future?
Historically, synagogues have been nimble and able to change more quickly than other Jewish institutions. They operate in a competitive environment, which means that they have every reason to learn from one another’s successes and failures.
Going back to the beginnings of the Reform Movement in Charleston in the 1820s, it's been young Jews who have found new directions that excite the Jewish community, new ideas that all Jews learn from. That’s been true time and again in American Jewish history, including as recently as the 1960s and ’70s, when members of the “Jewish counterculture” brought new energy into American Jewish life and established a host of new institutions.
I expect that, in time, young Jews will again step up to the plate. I look to them to find new ways to reinvigorate and reinvent our community.
Finally, I am heartened by the fact that as many Jews as ever – indeed, many more than in years past – are today training for the rabbinate in America. Their optimistic conviction that they can transform American Jewish life should give hope to us all.