The New Jew­ish Lead­ers: Reshap­ing the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Landscape

Jack Wertheimer, ed.
  • Review
By – August 8, 2012

This book pro­vides data and insights intend­ed to guide the insti­tu­tion­al changes need­ed to attract and enhance the com­mit­ment of today’s young Jews. Sev­er­al impor­tant shifts in the gen­er­al soci­ety, which are echoed in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, pose seri­ous chal­lenges. The first is relat­ed to changes in the life cycle. Full adult­hood and thus eco­nom­ic inde­pen­dence are delayed. In addi­tion, the twen­ties are often marked by a real­i­ty not men­tioned in this book: young adults form seri­ous rela­tion­ships and cohab­it, delay­ing mar­riage and par­ent­hood to the thir­ties and beyond.

At the same time, reli­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the U.S. has changed: peo­ple more eas­i­ly switch denom­i­na­tions or define them­selves as Just Jew­ish”; reli­gious con­ver­sion is on the rise; bar­ri­ers to inter­re­li­gious mar­riage, both atti­tu­di­nal and insti­tu­tion­al, have decreased. Even among the Jew­ish­ly iden­ti­fied, inter­re­li­gious dat­ing has become more accept­able and inter­mar­riage rates are alarm­ing­ly high in small­er cities.

Numer­ous schol­ar­ly and pro­gram­mat­ic efforts are being devot­ed to respond­ing to these shifts. This book adds a great deal to that dis­course. It is based on empir­i­cal stud­ies of young Jew­ish lead­ers, par­tic­i­pants in nov­el ini­tia­tives to pro­mote Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and a care­ful and clever analy­sis of Jew­ish inter­net sites that offers a great­ly need­ed set of infor­ma­tion about this new social force. In addi­tion, it pro­vides valu­able descrip­tive infor­ma­tion about many of the inno­v­a­tive pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions that are per­haps reshap­ing” com­mu­nal life. The book affirms what is already known, yet is still impor­tant to under­stand: young Jew­ish lead­ers grew up in house­holds with sig­nif­i­cant civic engage­ment and reli­gious prac­tice (as mea­sured by the light­ing of Shab­bat can­dles), received bet­ter than aver­age Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, and spent sub­stan­tial amounts of time in Israel. Var­i­ous arti­cles describe sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between young peo­ple engaged in long­stand­ing (estab­lish­ment) orga­ni­za­tions and those involved in one of the host of nov­el efforts to cul­ti­vate com­mit­ment by young peo­ple.

While the book has con­sid­er­able strengths, it leaves out what are impor­tant ele­ments of Jew­ish com­mu­nal life: what is described as insu­lar” and Ortho­dox. Even though a large pro­por­tion of the lead­ers sur­veyed are Ortho­dox, they were main­ly select­ed on the basis of their involve­ment in trans­de­nom­i­na­tion­al efforts. The omis­sion of Chabad, Agu­dath Israel’s Part­ners in Torah,” and the Man­hat­tan Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence is unfor­tu­nate giv­en an impor­tant trend — the growth in Ortho­dox affil­i­a­tion, as is evi­dent in the recent New York City pop­u­la­tion sur­vey. Although inno­v­a­tive efforts like Part­ner­ship Minyan­im” and Lim­mud are wor­thy of dis­cus­sion, orga­ni­za­tions dis­missed as insu­lar are, in fact, part of the refash­ion­ing described in this book. 

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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