American Judaism’s virtual and ad hoc future after the pandemic

American Judaism, long concentrated in large metropolitan regions and organized around major institutions, is giving way to a “new Jewish identity in which the internet now plays the role that urban neighborhoods once did as a hub of communal organizing and religious teaching,” write Joel Kotkin and Edward Heyman in The Tablet (February 17). These shifts have been accelerated by the pandemic as it has dispersed those from traditional urban centers to fast-growing regions in the South and West. The urban periphery, as well as primarily suburban, sprawling cities such as Miami, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Houston, Atlanta, and Denver, have seen the fastest Jewish growth. While small-town Judaism has suffered losses in recent decades, that may be changing, as even before the pandemic Orthodox Jews were leaving city centers and relocating to nearby small towns, such as in New York’s Hudson Valley and the Catskills. But these relocations are less important than the networks and online communities emerging to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews. The emergence of ad hoc or “fluid” religiosity is also feeding the deinstitutional trend (as seen in other faiths) and is especially prominent among millennials.

Kotkin and Heyman add that while the assimilationist Reform and Conservative Jewish movements may have been important for first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants, this form of Jewishness is now being criticized for accommodating the demands and pulls of America’s modern commercial culture. The high cost of living a Jewish lifestyle, including Jewish day school, synagogue membership, camp, and Federation-giving, doesn’t resonate with many younger Jews, and these institutions will likely be weaker after the pandemic. While Orthodox Jewish communities such as Chabad continue to flourish, Kotkin and Heyman note that other alternative groups are finding a following, such as independent minyans. These minyans, which have grown to over 60 groups in 36 American cities and 17 in 12 foreign cities, are organized by lay volunteers around worship and charitable activities.

In these groups, there is an “unbundling” of the synagogue, with its component parts being carried out by bottom-up associations. One example of this is Atlanta’s Jewish Kids Group, a nondenominational after-school program that offers Jewish education “with a summer camp vibe outside the synagogue structure.”

Source: My Jewish Learning.

Another is a program called “Adventure Judaism,” based in Boulder, Colorado, where the rabbi frees people from their synagogues and video screens to encounter their Judaism as they “climb mountains, go skiing, play the guitar, and sing around a campfire.” Many of these organizations have strong online components that can draw support beyond one locality, especially important since Jewish federations have experienced sharp declines.

(The Tablet,