Academic journal article American Jewish History

Identity Projects: Philanthropy, Neoliberalism, and Jewish Cultural Production

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Identity Projects: Philanthropy, Neoliberalism, and Jewish Cultural Production

Article excerpt

Over the course of the twentieth century, a network of Jewish philanthropic organizations gradually came to dominate and define the American Jewish collective. At the center of this network are Jewish community charity federations, which first emerged in the late nineteenth century and reached their apex of power in the decades following World War II. Even in the face of significant intra-Jewish diversity and rapid assimilation and secularization, participation in these communal agencies, which became known as the "federation system," helped to create and reproduce a cohesive and powerful American Jewish community. (1) Writing in 1976, political scientist Daniel Elazar understood the federation system as an American Jewish polity--a corporate, non-state political actor. (2) Writing a decade later, Jonathan Woocher applied Robert Bellah's terminology and identified American Jewish philanthropy as a form of "civil religion," a set of solidifying symbols, rituals, and practices. (3)

It is now widely believed that this network, and, by extension the American Jewish community itself, is in decline. This perception has led to Jewish communal handwringing, to a pervasive sense of anxiety, and to massive investments in Jewish continuity initiatives. Jewish social scientists and policymakers have pointed to generational shifts, in which younger Jews forsake Jewish communal loyalties and practices, as a primary explanation for this decline. Such a formulation frames Jewish identification as untethered from communal norms and, instead, increasingly grounded in individual choice and personal experience. Dana Kaplan, for example, argues that, now unmoored from the Jewish "essence" of communal norms, "individual religious autonomy allows each Jew to interpret his or her own Judaism. American Jews are then free to mold their Judaism to fit their personal needs, privatizing a religion that has always stressed the collective." (4) In a similar vein, sociologists

Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen write:

   The principal authority for contemporary American Jews, in the
   absence of compelling religious norms and communal loyalties, has
   become the sovereign self. Each person now performs the labor of
   fashioning his or her own self, pulling together elements from the
   various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available, rather than
   stepping into an "inescapable framework" of identity (familial,
   communal, traditional) given at birth. (5)

These scholarly appraisals have become incorporated into Jewish communal discourses and policy decisions aimed at reversing this trend. Take, for example, Adults Emerging: New Paradigms for Millennial Engagement, a Jewish Federation report published in zoi6. The report describes Jewish millennials in the following terms:

   Millennials have a different way of doing things. They are digital
   natives: no landlines, no TVs, lots of Facetime. Many are
   wanderers, moving from job to job and place to place, testing and
   experimenting. They seek diversity; they are disinterested in
   Jewish-only relationships; they are cultural relativists. Perhaps
   most significantly, their personal experience reigns. They push
   away inherited behaviors, such as belonging to synagogues or JCCs
   or giving to Federation. Instead, they spend resources and capital
   as an expression of their sense of self. (6)

Jewish philanthropic investments in reversing assimilation are often directed at creating programs that assume that Jewish identity for young Jews is defined by choice. Rather than existing in contrast to or outside of communal institutions and norms, we argue that individual choice has, in fact, become integrated into them. To illustrate how, we analyze three formal institutional frameworks within which young Jews can now consume and produce highly individualized Jewish experiences. By "frameworks," we mean metacultural practices and structures that foster Jewish cultural production, biosocial reproduction and Jewish communal continuity. …

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