The New Amer­i­can Judaism: How Jews Prac­tice Their Reli­gion Today

Jack Wertheimer

By – October 15, 2018

What res­onates with today’s Jews? How porous are the bor­ders of Judais­m’s denom­i­na­tion­al affil­i­a­tions? And what actu­al­ly takes place dur­ing syn­a­gogue wor­ship across the Unit­ed States? Jack Wertheimer, a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, address­es these ques­tions and more in The New Amer­i­can Judaism: How Jews Prac­tice Their Reli­gion Today. This study is based on three years of con­ver­sa­tions with 160 rab­bis and thought lead­ers across the Jew­ish spectrum.

Through a mix of anthro­pol­o­gy, soci­ol­o­gy, the­ol­o­gy and humor (as Wertheimer notes before enter­ing into a nuanced dis­cus­sion of one denom­i­na­tion’s ide­o­log­i­cal state of affairs, a wag once mem­o­rably clas­si­fied Ortho­dox, Con­ser­v­a­tive, and Reform Judaism as, respec­tive­ly, crazy, hazy, and lazy‘”), Wertheimer takes read­ers on a guid­ed tour of the cur­rent state of affairs of prac­ticed Judaism across the U.S.

Wertheimer reviews more recent phe­nom­e­na in Amer­i­can Jew­ish life — includ­ing grow­ing Amer­i­can Sephardic com­mu­ni­ties and their tra­di­tions, the appear­ance of post-denom­i­na­tion­al reli­gious start-ups,” the rapid growth of Ortho­dox out­reach orga­ni­za­tions (see, for exam­ple, Soho loft par­ties host­ed by a Chabad cou­ple and the Ortho­dox Union’s NCSY divi­sion that seeks to attract non-Ortho­dox teens to greater obser­vance of Jew­ish law), med­i­ta­tion-focused mind­ful­ness cen­ters” housed in promi­nent syn­a­gogues, the so-called social Ortho­doxy” cohort (made up of indi­vid­u­als who don’t ascribe to Ortho­dox beliefs, but affil­i­ate with Ortho­dox life due to its social and com­mu­nal val­ue), and the strug­gle to cre­ate com­mu­ni­ties of mean­ing in a hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ized world. He also pro­vides updat­ed data on clas­sic Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity con­cerns regard­ing inter­mar­riage, con­ver­sion, and the sta­tus of women.

From the major move­ments’ cen­tral­ized author­i­ties and their impact (or not) on their con­stituen­cies, to the choic­es indi­vid­ual Jews make when it comes to their cus­toms, beliefs, and rit­u­al obser­vances, Wertheimer offers an acces­si­ble and engag­ing lay of the land. Con­clud­ing with a call for a Judaism of fre­quent par­tic­i­pa­tion” (as opposed to one-off check-ins at the local syn­a­gogue dur­ing peak life moments) based on inten­tion­al prac­tice, Jew­ish lit­er­a­cy and his­toric mem­o­ry, and com­mu­nal affil­i­a­tion cen­tered on the syn­a­gogue, Wertheimer acts as both a help­ful chron­i­cler and car­ing shep­herd of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions

With The New Amer­i­can Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a pre­em­i­nent schol­ar and stu­dent of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ry, presents an inci­sive sur­vey of the diverse and rapid­ly evolv­ing styles in which Judaism is lived in Amer­i­ca today. Wertheimer reveals a Judaism buf­fet­ed by the cross-cur­rents of twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry life. He explores the impact of the ambi­ent sec­u­lar­ism, rel­a­tivism, and indi­vid­u­al­ism of our time; the demo­graph­ic ero­sion and increas­ing pace of inter­mar­riage; but also the evi­dence of vital­i­ty, of renew­al, the pur­suit of inno­va­tion and exper­i­men­ta­tion, the accep­tance of a new inclu­sive­ness, the inter­est in spir­i­tu­al heal­ing, in mind­ful­ness” and mys­ti­cism, and the hunger for iden­ti­ty, com­mu­ni­ty and mean­ing. Wertheimer looks with a sharp ana­lyt­ic eye at the pro­lif­er­at­ing vari­ety of Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice as illus­trat­ed by vivid and telling accounts of life­cy­cle events, Sab­bath and hol­i­day obser­vance, home and con­gre­ga­tion­al activ­i­ty. For all who care about the diver­si­ty of Jew­ish reli­gious engage­ment today and as it may evolve in the years ahead, this is a tru­ly impor­tant book.