If you were Jewish 200 years ago, it defined everything about you. It defined what you ate, where you lived, how you dressed, what you did for a living, how you spoke, and who you married. But if you are Jewish today, that may be just one piece of your multifaceted identity.
At a time when thought leaders like Yehuda Kurtzer from the Shalom Hartman Institute say, “We are all Jews by choice,” the quintessential question we must answer is: why should Jews make this choice today? And, if we do make that choice, then what exactly does it mean?
As Jews connect and commune differently today – from online, camp-led Rosh Hashanah services to wilderness-based Bar Mitzvahs to JCC holiday celebrations – we must acknowledge that Jewish peoplehood is going through an evolution to its next era: Jewish Peoplehood 4.0.
Why 4.0? Let’s start at 1.0.
Jewish Peoplehood 1.0 was the Judaism of wandering. Our tradition tells us the Israelites went down to Egypt because of a famine in Israel. There, they multiplied until a new Pharaoh came to power and enslaved them. Then Moses freed them from slavery, received the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai and led them wandering in the desert for 40 years until they made it back to the Promised Land: Israel. During that time, our spirituality traveled with us. God traveled with us via a portable holy ark called the Mishkan.
Then we settled in Israel and we built the Holy Temple. That was the beginning of Jewish Peoplehood 2.0 – the Judaism of home. Our holiness went from portable to stationary. The Jews had our own land, with a thriving community. The Temple became the center of our Jewish life. The First Temple was destroyed, and years later it was rebuilt. Then the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews were thrown out of Israel – nearly 2000 years ago – and Judaism underwent its next major transformation.
That was the beginning of Jewish Peoplehood 3.0 – the Judaism of the Diaspora. We codified a system of law, called the Halakha, that could guide our lives and society in any location. We developed synagogues, which could be built anywhere, where we pray instead of offering animal sacrifices as we had in the Temple, and where scholars of the law, rabbis, could lead the community in learning. And believe it or not, this is pretty much still the Judaism we still see today.
But now, Jewish peoplehood is at an inflection point. Why now? Because five pivotal factors are coming to a head.
Affiliations to old institutions are dropping. People are not affiliating with legacy institutions the way they used to. The latest Pew study reports less than one-third of Jews belong to a synagogue. They are opting out or creating their own new religious spaces, such as independent minyanim. While some thought leaders call this a crisis, others, like David Bryfman from the Jewish Education Project, say it’s our greatest success. The fact that young people want to opt-in to do Jewish their own way means we succeeded in making them want to be Jewish and be free thinkers. So what less institutional ways of organizing will govern Jewish life in the future? How might we strike up real partnerships between the institutions and the new breed of Jewish start-ups?
Ethnographics are shifting. Defining who is a Jew has been flipped on its head. From ethnicity to conversion – it’s all being questioned. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews no longer have the monopoly they once thought they did. Korean Jews, Indian Jews, African Jews and others are making their voices heard. Maternal descent no longer rules the day. Interfaith marriage is a foregone conclusion. And there are even non-Jewish Jews who take upon themselves all the trappings of living a Jewish life, but haven’t officially converted. Even gender restrictions are fading away as transgender individuals are playing more of a role in Jewish leadership today. So what would “radical inclusivity” really look like? And in the absence of ethnicity (or religiosity) as de facto determinants of Jewishness, what are the new foundations of Jewishness?
Israel exists – and it is here to stay. This is the first time in Jewish history when there is both a strong Jewish homeland and a strong Jewish Diaspora, which means we need to redefine how Israel and the rest of the Jewish world engage with each other – especially vis-à-vis America, the strongest and largest Jewish community outside Israel. What would a new paradigm in thinking about this relationship look like? What would it mean if both communities engaged with each other with respect and love, instead of finger-wagging and judgment? What would it look like if we could transcend our political and religious differences and share our best ideas so Jewish life could be elevated in both places?
There is a broadened search for meaning and belonging. Today, people can find meaning and belonging in a yoga group or Burning Man or a Crossfit gym or even a good book club. Some who are seeking Jewish meaning are innovating new rituals because they still need that meaning and connection in their Jewish lives, but they’re not finding it in the traditional offerings. The Dartmouth Jewish Studies professor Shaul Magid calls this a form of “vibrant secular Judaism.” So what Jewish rituals and forms of expression can deliver meaning and belonging in this brave new world?
Technology and science are evolving rapidly. Our ability to connect through social media, virtual reality and artificial intelligence was already fundamentally changing the way we interact with each other before Covid. But now Zoom Bar Mitzvahs are commonplace, while high holiday services are being completely reimagined with technology. And we are now on the eve of making kosher pork with cloned pigs while self-driving cars could make travel on Shabbat a reality as well. What will these changes mean for doing and being Jewish when they become common practice?
We are experiencing what Rabbi Benay Lappe calls a “sociological crash” – which is when someone’s worldview is challenged by new realities. When this happens, people can react in one of three ways: They can build walls and push away the new views, they can drop the old and embrace the new, or they can innovate to combine the two.
This brings us to Jewish Peoplehood 4.0.
In order for our operating system to stay meaningful and relevant, it must evolve. But what and who defines Jewish Peoplehood 4.0?
The actualization of this next era involves thinking deeply about our relationship to Jewish rituals and Halakha, to Zionism and to peoplehood. It will demand that we find ways to engage other types of Jews and non-Jews as well. It will require us to weave the old and the new, the Israeli and the American, the secular and the religious, the big institution and the small start-up.
For us to architect the Jewish future, we need to embrace the Jewish past, while listening to those in the present who are voting with their feet. Jewish peoplehood has always embraced changes that allowed it to survive—and thrive—through transformational moments in our history.
Admittedly, none of us know what the Jewish future will look like. But I for one am excited to help shape it.
Zack Bodner is the Chief Executive Officer of the Oshman Family JCC and Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.