The Ascent of Jewish Individualism

Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer have an essay in this month’s issue of Commentary on the devaluation of group responsibility and social cohesion in the Jewish community and the rise of individualism.
While the piece does a great job of trendspotting and identifying the present state of affairs, it does little to examine the reasons why Jews are defecting towards individual expressions of Judaism and receding from communal participation and identification with their fellow Jews.
Though I believe B’nai B’rith Magazine’s article last year “Uncovering The Un-Movement” offers some clues in this direction, as does Rick Marker in his statements to Jewschool previously, and my yet unfinished critique of institutional Judaism which I authored last October, I’d like to invite the autonomous peanut gallery that comprises our readership and contributorship to chime in on the issue:
What is/are the chilul hashem(s) driving you out the Jewish communal door? If such issues were addressed, would you identify more strongly with your co-religionists? What would it take to revive the Jewish communitarian spirit? Is it even something you want a part of anymore? And if not, why not?
As a sidebar, I’d like to add that in reading pieces such as this — which includes Ismar Shorsch’s recent remarks and the B’nai B’rith article cited above — I often get the impression that the previous generation is seeking to evade responsibility for their failure to propagate an “ideal Jewish community” by shifting blame to the current generation. To that I say, it’s is not we who have been at the helm of Jewish leadership for the last 30 years. It is you, the prior generation! We did not choose to be plopped in front of the television, leaving MTV to serve in loco parentis. We did not develop Jewish day school curriculae. We did not hire the last wave of Jewish educators. We did not choose to bankrupt the public education system while making private Jewish education unaffordable. We did not choose our rabbis or our synagogues’ nussachs. We did not choose the Occupation. We did not choose the Federation system, denominationalism, nor the ADL. We are not responsible for the emphasis on individual fulfillment nor the rise in “spiritual consumerism” which has taken foothold in the last half-century. You bear responsibility for falling asleep at the wheel. You’re the yuppie bastards who traded in a tie-dyed revolution for Ikea and 401k plans. That we’re left to make sense of the devastated world you left behind is on you, not us. Own your failure and wave not your finger. We’re doing the best we possibly can with such inherited circumstances.

18 thoughts on “The Ascent of Jewish Individualism

  1. this trend is connected with broad american social/consumer trends towards individualism. i have heard an argument that this is tied into the rise of corporate markerting begining in the 50s that positioned the consumer as a decisor who ought consider only their own preferences in making decesions.

  2. I’m not buying their claim. Sure, Jews aren’t giving to federations anymore, but there are lots more options (still within the Jewish community) for tzedakah dollars these days; we can give to AJWS or Mazon or the New Israel Fund.
    I agree with their bashing of the UJC’s “Live generously” campaign, with its emphasis on the individual donor rather than on the recipient. But that type of campaign, along with the worship of big-dollar donors that goes on in the Jewish establishment, is precisely what our generation is rebelling against. This attitude is why we’re not giving to Federation.

  3. I agree with you, but “traded in a tie-dyed revolution?” If you think that self-indulgent hippie shit of the 1960s was a revolution, you’ve got a lot to learn.

  4. Agree with zt (comment 2) – this is more about American cultural trends than specifically Jewish issues. I am 40-something and many of my own generation have never been on the radar in terms of communal affiliation – as confirmed by the many studies and surveys.
    So it’s not fair to blame just the current 20-30 somethings. Many of their parents were not affiliated.
    I think one of the things Judaism offers BTs is precisely this sense of community, and committment in relationships. Many find this lacking in secular American society.

  5. “We did not choose to bankrupt the public education system while making private Jewish education unaffordable.”
    So Jews bankrupted the public education system?

  6. oh for god’s sake, are you kidding me? are you so blind as to not see the mix of secular and jewish social conditions in those sentences?

  7. I’m also in my 40s and feel the same kind of alienation that a lot of younger people feel.
    I was raised nominally Jewish by atheist parents, and only really discovered Judaism about 10 years ago, when my daughter was small. I jumped in with both feet, joining a shul, taking classes, studying, helping to lead services during the rabbi’s sabbatical, increasing my observance, etc., etc. It worked out great until someone was so lousy to my 5-year-old that she no longer wanted to go to shul at all–and she had loved it so much that she would blow kisses at the building whenever we went by.
    I attempted to remedy the situation w/o success, and then I went to the rabbi. He told me that most people supported the woman who had been lousy to my daughter because this woman was one of the founding members of the synagogue. Being relatively new to Judaism, I asked him to enlighten me as to the relevant passage in Torah that enjoins us to support only the big donors. He couldn’t. I left.
    My experience in the next shul was similarly aggravating. So I’ve sworn off shuls, and have never felt so sane and so happy.
    My feeling is that most shuls are more interested in institutional self-preservation than in nurturing the people who go there. It’s also apparent to me that many shuls are still all about survival and defeating Hitler–“We must be observant because we almost got wiped out”–rather than about joy. I had very difficult beginnings, and I’ve long since moved from merely surviving to actively pursuing joy. My joy is very hard won. So I have no patience for people who argue on Shabbos about whether the cheese and wine are kosher enough when they could be looking at the world around them–and at one another–and be amazed at what they see.
    In general, I feel that I’m asked to give up way too much of myself in order to be fit into any shul. I suppose this is my issue with all institutions–educational, corporate, and religious. They work for awhile, and then I end up feeling stifled rather than inspired, or some injustice happens, and I’m outraged, but few other people care. I’m not surprised that this happens in educational and corporate institutions, but I’m always blown away when it happens in religious ones. I don’t know why I should be surprised that shuls don’t always practice what they preach. I guess I just take it all too seriously. Or something.
    So I guess it’s no surprise that I live out in the country now, and that my husband and I have formed our own Jewish community organization so that we could have some measure of control over its guiding principles. We have no membership lists, no dues, no building of our own and no building fund. For services and celebrations, we use space at a local meditation center. We invite people to come as they are to our services and classes, and to contribute whatever they like, financially or otherwise.
    The community here is small and scattered; people come to services when they can, but there isn’t a lot of cohesion. Apart from what we do in our household, I often feel like I’m doing Judaism individually. And I mourn that–I really do. But if the alternative is to give up my most valued principles, I’ll gladly grieve what I don’t have rather than give myself over to institutions and communities that I can’t in good conscience support.

  8. often get the impression that the previous generation is seeking to evade responsibility for their failure to propagate an “ideal Jewish community” by shifting blame to the current generation. To that I say, it’s is not we who have been at the helm of Jewish leadership for the last 30 years.
    In an otherwise fine post, I have to take exception to this. In defense of my fellow geezers, i think you all need to realize that most of us oldsters were not at the helm of Jewish leadership over the past 30 years. We could only watch in fascinated horror at what happned. And also, what was done during the past 30 years was not too much different than what was done during the 30 years prior to that. You know, the more things change, themore they remain the same.

  9. The defection of so many people from Jewish communal life has nothing to do with American individualism, but with its opposite–Torah’s injunction to build just, loving, and responsible communities. Those of us who are spiritually seeking people, who want to help build a better world, and want do it in a spiritual community, go to shuls or community centers or other mainstream institutions, hoping to find like-minded people who will work together and take Torah seriously.
    Instead, we get a social club. Who needs that? I’d rather take Torah on the road myself and do the good I’m meant to do in the world than make cocktail-party conversation with someone in a shul.
    And by the way, guys…I’m noticing that you’re nitpicking mobius’ article and not telling us your war stories. I can’t be the only one who’s left a shul with my (normally low) blood pressure highly elevated.

  10. The aim of Cohen/Wertheimer was NOT to provide analysis or rationale for this evolving phenomenon of Jewish-American individualism, but rather to simply acknowledge its existence. This is about a whole heck of a lot more than just who the Jews give to. This is about the Jewish community in the United States – now the world’s second largest – not identifying with clal or am Yisrael. The majority of American Jews simply see themselves as part of the White American majority whose church happens to be a synagogue. This, in one Jew’s humble opinion, is a great tragedy becuase if Jews are only connected by a simple set of beliefs or values than we no longer have a need for each other not to speak of our common narrative or language. This article digresses a bit from Cohen’s typical studies filled with objectified statistics and other such qualititive research methods. Here, he seems worried. Worried about the future of this mass of Americans-of-the-Mosaic-persuasion, who no longer feel a connection to Am, Eretz, or even Torat Yisrael. What is the Hilul HaShem here (if we still must put it in religious terms)? That the question of “Is it even something you want a part of anymore?” continues to be asked.
    If we want to revive this nation, then one solution occurs to me: Jews communicating with other Jews in the Jewish language. Learn Hebrew. Go beyond the realm of the siddur and live in a modern Jewish discourse. What’s wrong with a little particularism peppered in the great salad of universalism?

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