For many younger people, American Jewry means this: "Synagogues are for people with children. And they are generally uninspiring."
"JCCs are also for people with children. And they don't have great gyms, either."
"Federations only want my money. Then they want me to be quiet."
"This Jewish group wants to tell me how I ought to be Jewish."
"That Jewish organization wants to tell me I should be having children sooner rather than later (and with whom I should be having them)."
"I know nothing about Israel."
Whether or not this impression of American Jewry is accurate is, of course, a matter of opinion. What's not up for debate is that young American Jews who remain single later in life are responding to these perceptions with a wave of cultural and organizational creativity that American Jewry has not experienced since the early part of the 20th century. They are inventing new communal outlets and projects that reflect their individuality and commitment to living meaningful Jewish lives.
In Los Angeles, hundreds of young Jews belong to IKAR, a "community" that blends spirituality with social justice. Out of New York, Reboot publishes the quarterly magazine Guilt & Pleasure, attracting readers who use the articles as a basis for salons. Across North America, the music label JDub Records has built communities of fans who are drawn to the "Jewish sensibilities" of its artists.
These are just three notable examples of a movement quietly gaining momentum for more than a decade.
Many traditionalists and Jews from older generations view this phenomenon as a disintegration of American Jewish life, as they consider these new efforts not serious enough to foster meaning.
Rather than concluding that these new endeavors are weak or competing versions of existing institutions, we would do better to understand them as expressing an alternative vision of what Jewish communities can look like and how they can serve the needs of their members.
Roughly 100 years ago, young immigrants and "all-rightniks" constructed the current American Jewish infrastructure — from agencies and landsmanshaften to nightclubs and shuls with pools. Now we are seeing smaller, more localized, but no less provocative, efforts to rejuvenate and engage in Judaism by those under 40.
In cities across the country, they're creating their own minyans, instead of joining synagogues; they're writing and publishing their own journals instead of just subscribing to existing ones; they're playing their own music, putting out records and producing concerts. They're hosting salons and film screenings. They are involved in the creation of Jewish life that is thoughtful, popular and exists largely on the margins of mainstream organizational life.
These new endeavors do not resemble their predecessors because they are responding to the perception that the offerings of synagogues, federations and Jewish Community Centers are too narrow, and don't address the diverse needs of American Jews.
This also translates into practice, as the organizations typically resist anything hierarchical, denominational, exclusionary or judgmental. Such resistance is partially a critique of mainstream Jewish groups, and partially an expression of deeply held beliefs in pluralism, as well as an understanding of the fluidity of identity in general.
These creative, thoughtful, dissatisfied people had no desire to join committees, take over sisterhood groups, or participate in the young-leadership branch of local or national organizations. They also understood that the landscape of Jewish life could sustain a greater diversity of organizations and experiences.
Today, there is great communal anxiety over the behaviors, attitudes and activities of American Jews between 18 and 35.
But what we're seeing is not the loss of Jewish practice. Instead, we're seeing people who want to build something new — something with a different vision of what an institution can be.
Ari Y. Kelman is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of California at Davis.