The American Jewish Future May Be Found in the Margins (Full Unedited Version)
While health issues have prevented me from producing the podcast the past couple of months, my Jewish writing revival continues at Publishers Weekly, where I somehow convinced the religion editor to give me the "Jewish beat." So, I've been having fun doing features and interviews (not book reviews) on some interesting Jewish authors.

My latest one is an interview with Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote a book called The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. You can take a look at the 800-word, edited version in PW here. Or, you can read the unedited, 1,140-word version below, which goes a bit more into Wertheimer's thoughts on whether the current rise in anti-Semitism is bringing American Jews back into synagogues. He also talks about Tikkun Olam as a phenomenon among progressive Jews and whether that translates into Jewish religious commitment. You might be surprised by his answers. 

Thank you for reading and for your continued support.

By Howard Lovy

Pinning down how Jews practice their religion can be a slippery target, since it's all wrapped up in definitions: What is a Jew? What is Jewish practice? In an age of declining overall religious belief in the United States, and an increasingly diverse way Jews are defining themselves, is there a way to corral the disparate pieces into a full picture of American Jews? Jack Wertheimer, says there is, and it's precisely this diversity and constant state of innovation that gives him some hope in a future for US Jewry.

Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, lays out a generally optimistic view in The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today (Princeton University Press). And while there's no single headline that encapsulates the book's conclusions, the overriding feeling is that it's the ability of US Jewry to innovate at the margins, then adapt the innovations, that is keeping Jewish practice fresh and vibrant despite concerns over intermarriage. 

"Conventional synagogues are savvy enough to learn and to adapt the practices that have been pioneered on the margins," Wertheimer said in an interview with Publishers Weekly. "I'm less skeptical about the long-term future of denominational synagogues as some others are. They seem to be rising to the occasion and in adapting."

What that means is the Big Three denominations of Jewry—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—are not likely to disappear anytime soon despite changes in the way US Jews prefer to practice their religion. For example, Wertheimer said, the past couple of decades have seen a preference for more-intimate, smaller, informal groups gathering to worship together. Synagogues have been able to adapt to this preference and offer more-intimate settings for prayer within the larger institution. 

First, though, Wertheimer said it is important to understand what he did not emphasize in this book. He focuses on those who do practice the religion in some way. But he acknowledges that there are many Jews in the United States who no longer practice Judaism or attend a synagogue, yet still consider themselves to be "cultural Jews." Yet, in the long run, a cultural identity is probably not enough, he said. "When it comes to the sustainability of Jewish life, I have serious doubts whether Jewish identity and commitments will be transmitted to the coming generations absent religious involvement," Wertheimer said. 

There is another large subset of American Jews who identify with Judaism as an historical and religious justification for social action, for what is known as Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, based on an ancient Talmudic metaphor. Social justice work may use Judaism as its basis, but it rarely, by itself, results in religious commitment, he said

"The Reform movement emphasized engagement with the social concerns of the day, but Tikkun Olam goes beyond that and ratifies what people already believe and want to do," Wertheimer said. "And the question that I posed in my book is whether Tikkun Olam really does bring people to synagogues. From the evidence I've collected, including from a fair number of Reform rabbis whom I spoke with, that does not translate into their coming to the synagogue for other purposes."

And there is one other major factor that may rally Jews together, indeed make nonpracticing Jews "feel" more Jewish, yet is not likely to result in increased religious participation. That is the current rise in anti-Semitism. Has that rise resulted in increased religious involvement? Wertheimer said not so far.

"Synagogues have served as gathering places at times of stress and Jews who otherwise might not attend on a Friday night or a Sabbath morning do attend when there's some major crisis and they feel that they want to be part of a community. Does that translate into ongoing Jewish religious involvement? I haven't seen evidence of that," Wertheimer said.

What Wertheimer set out to do was to get out of "elite" leadership circles and document "the actual experiences of people who are either attending synagogues or are attending the growing number of other places where Jewish religious congregating is taking place," he said. Wertheimer interviewed more than 200 rabbis and scholars over many years in researching the book. What he found was that experimental practices pioneered by so-called "Jewish startups" are being adopted by the mainstream, which is keeping Jewish practice alive and relevant. 

"From a numerical point of view at this point they are not terribly important, but when it comes to the experiments that they are engaged in and the kinds of practices that they're pioneering I think that they're quite important," Wertheimer said. Practices like meditation and healing services, and small fellowships known as havurah, are being adopted by the mainstream. Once considered a rebellion against conventional synagogues, "lo and behold within a short number of years hundreds of synagogues created small fellowships within their larger congregation and adapted the havurah model to the conventional synagogue."

Wertheimer is not impressed with statistics that say millennials are less religious than previous generations. Many have yet to practice what Wertheimer calls in his book a "Judaism for peak moments," or family friendly holidays such as Purim or rites of passage like bar and bat mitzvahs.

"We know from previous generations that one of the major circumstances that bring people to join synagogues is that they seek a Jewish education for their children," Wertheimer said. "So if millennials are only beginning to have children in the latter part of their 30s, the likelihood is that they will not be involved with synagogues until they are somewhat older."

What does need to happen, he said, is a willingness of younger Jews to educate themselves about Judaism. Otherwise, "the best we can hope for is a very thin Jewish culture and a very limited impact that Judaism will have in the lives of individuals." 

There is no doubt that synagogues are changing, adapting everything from new kinds of music and choreography of the service to offering transliterated prayer books. "I think that that there are that there still is a an image of synagogues that's based upon the post-World War II congregation, which was a far colder and more formal place. But it's just not an accurate portrayal of what synagogues are like like today."

Researching The New American Judaism has renewed Wertheimer's own sense of hope for the future. "I've been involved in such writing about some of the problematic aspects of Jewish religious life and my book strives to rebalance that picture by also attending to those Jews who are involved," he said. "What's the nature of their involvement? What is attractive to them? What's meaningful to them? What's available to them? And how Jewish religious leaders are working very hard to help Jews find the synagogue to be a meaningful place."  

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