Reinventing American Judaism

Fall, 2009

Source: Reform Judaism Online - Fall, 2009


The financial crisis and demographic shifts are reshaping the Jewish community in ways we could hardly have imagined a generation ago. Historian and Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna sheds light on what history can teach us about Jewish revival in uncertain times.


Based on historical analysis of American Judaism and observations of recent demographic and economic developments, the author sees the following trends emerging:

  • "First, I think we will see an increase in the number of mergers among institutions – Jewish with Jewish, as well as Jewish with secular.
  • A second trend I think we’ll see is an effort to reengage small donors.
  • Third, as a result of Madoff losses, belt-tightening, and nationwide dissatisfaction with executive perks, we’re likely to see higher ethical standards, reduced executive compensation, and greater transparency in Jewish organizational life. Executive salaries are likely to fall at foundations, federations, seminaries, day schools, and other key institutions. In the short run these cuts will have little effect on the Jewish community; people are glad just to be employed. In the long run, however, we may be deprived of quality individuals who choose instead to work in the private sector.
  • Fourth, I believe power will flow back to the center. The American Jewish community tends to follow national trends, and with a U.S. president at the helm who believes in government as a force for good and for change, I expect we’ll see efforts to “rein in the cowboys” who have pursued go-it-alone policies for solving communal problems, and the promotion of greater communal cooperation and centralized planning.
  • Fifth, I anticipate a new focus on “sweat equity.” In the absence of start-up money, young, creative, technologically savvy Jews will volunteer their time to causes that inspire them.
  • Sixth, just as we saw in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, we can expect a discernible focus in the U.S. Jewish community and less engagement with Israel, especially among the non-Orthodox.
  • Seventh, perhaps surprisingly, I also anticipate a simultaneous uptick in aliyah, especially among the Orthodox and those who have already spent time in Israel, but have been reluctant to take the economic risk of starting a new life there."

The author also discusses Jewish demographic trends and their effect on Jewish life, the future of the Diaspora and its relations with Israel and changes in the way Jews express their Jewish identity.

Updated: Aug. 25, 2009