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From the Margins to the Mainstream: Millennial Jews and the Reorientation of the Jewish Middle

The onset of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis in early 2020 threw the world into a spin. Virtually overnight, travel shut down and people entered isolation and quarantine. Jewish communal life was forced to a grinding halt with many communities rushing to shift as much programming as possible to the digital sphere.

It is difficult to estimate how long the various restrictions will remain in place. It is likely that in the coming months, parts of the Jewish world will gradually begin returning to “normal.” However, this may be a “new normal” that is a hybrid of the pre-Corona era with elements of social distancing and online activity. As of this writing (June 2020), Israel has already begun this shift. Rabbis in the US are planning for the upcoming High Holidays, suggesting alternatives such as totally online prayer with new rituals that can be performed at home, hybrid online/in person prayer, or a modular format with a number of smaller prayer services staggered throughout the day and possibly throughout the week.1

We can assume that the longer restrictions remain in place, the more we can expect the Jewish world to be permanently changed to some extent.

This article is a summary and analysis of the ways in which North American Jewish communities have begun adapting to the COVID-19 crisis and the new emerging reality. Some of the adaptations relate to the pandemic and the need for social distancing, others to the resulting economic crisis – increased unemployment, and diminished philanthropic contributions and other revenues to Jewish organizations.

Many of the successful adaptations described are not so new, but rather connect to existing trends we have been observing on the margins of the mainstream Jewish community. We first described such trends in the 2019 Annual Assessment – “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Millennial American Jews and the Reorientation of the Jewish Middle.2The full report will be published throughout 2020.

The 2019 report, in brief, explains that in recent years, established Jewish institutions have struggled to engage young adults (in their 20s and 30s primarily), while membership statistics and denominational affiliation have declined (among non-Orthodox Jews). This has led many to declare a “shrinking Jewish middle.” However, while young adult Jews might connect less with denominational labels and less frequently hold membership in established organizations, they seem no less interested in engaging in Jewish behavior when defined more broadly. What we are seeing are generational shifts in Jewish behavior and identity rather than declines.

Young adult Jews are increasingly connecting to Judaism through innovative, often independent frameworks and organizations, including independent minyanim, emergent communities (the Jewish Emergent Network (JEN) comprises seven such communities), inventive projects operating from within the mainstream denominations, and thriving programs to engage young adults “where they are.” Taken together, we dub these an ecosystem of Jewish innovation. The reason for the relative success of these initiatives has been their early understanding and adaptation to these generational shifts.

We suggest that the COVID-19 crisis is not introducing these changes but is rather acting as a catalyst for existing shifts.3 By tapping into these adaptations, we seek to offer guidance and insights to Jewish leaders to understand how to better navigate Jewish institutions as US Jewry and the broader American society undergo this generational shift.

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