The American Jewish community has rarely stood still throughout its long history. It experiences ebbs and flows, expansion, contraction and transformation, often reflecting its wider social and religious surroundings. According to historian Jonathan Sarna, the face of American Jewry undergoes fundamental shifts in style and structure every few generations.1 Established American Jewish institutions, including synagogues, federations and others, have, to an extent, struggled in engaging with younger adult Jews (millennials). As one researcher notes, “engagement of young people is almost a preoccupation in the Jewish community,” while another states that “it’s a very real fear …” 2 Synagogues across the US (non-Orthodox) are consolidating, aging and even closing.3 Such concerns are often based on metrics such as a decline in denominational identification and synagogue membership.
Indeed, national and local studies reflect this trend. However, a different reading of the same studies also suggests that young adult Jews are as interested, and as likely to engage in Jewish behavior as older ones. However, they are doing so through a variety of innovative independent projects and frameworks.
This May (2019), leading Jewish innovators gathered for a “Collaboratory” in Brooklyn, hosted by Upstart, “to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together… building the future of non-traditional Jewish life… (amidst a) growing network of initiatives.”4 Also in May, Hakhel, the Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator, held its international conference, bringing together leaders from 21 Jewish intentional communities from across the globe.5 Only a year before, the seven independent members of the Jewish Emergent Network (JEN) met in Los Angeles for the first JEN conference, to celebrate, collaborate and share lessons about the new models of independent synagogues they are developing and that are attracting younger and unengaged Jews.6
While these are only a few of more recent developments in the ecosystem of American Jewish innovation, one can place them on the structural platforms started by the Independent Minyan movement, which held its first conference more than a decade ago, led by Mechon Hadar.7 Taken together, and despite the clear differences among the range of Jewish innovation, a set of common principles can be discerned. Understanding and distilling these can offer guidance and insights to current Jewish leaders and funders on how to better navigate Jewish institutions as American society, and American Jewry, transform.
To be sure, parts of what will be discussed here may be familiar to many readers. Our intention is to present a coherent picture of fairly recent developments, which when taken together might offer a glimpse into the developing structure and character of what mainstream American Judaism could resemble a generation away.