The author sees American Judaism as in transition, with those in their 20s and 30s “the first generation of fully American Jews” who are “far enough away from the trajectory of the immigration experience that they are part of the American fabric.”
No longer do many American Jews make their choices in terms of “what is good for the Jewish community,” says Olitzky, but rather they make choices about Jewish life based on what’s good for the individual.
As a result, the self-described futurist says that some institutions may no longer be needed. “I don’t worry that many of these institution will be sunsetted,” he says, pointing to the Jewish hospital as a no-longer-needed institution. The first Jewish hospital was founded in 1850 in Cincinnati to treat itinerant Jews who were refused health by other facilities, and also provided a place for Jewish interns and residents to train, he says.
With Jewish hospitals no longer needed for such a purpose, many were sold with the proceeds used to create foundations that support both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, says Olitzky.
The synagogue, too, he says, no longer has its original raison d’etre. “For their parents, the synagogues represented a claim on American soil as citizens. For the millennials, the synagogues are just buildings that serve a Jewish communal and religious purpose,” the rabbi writes.
“If synagogues continue to focus on the needs of the institution rather than on the needs of the individual, they will lose their dues-paying members and eventually become financially unviable,” he writes.
In “Playlist Judaism,” Olitzky advocates “public space Judaism”—holding holiday-related and other Jewish content events outside of Jewish institutions—and also gives examples of novel synagogue models. He points, for instance, to Ikar, a 500-plus family unit nondenominational “alternative synagogue community” in Los Angeles with “free-form worship,” which includes a drum circle, a commitment to community engagement (the congregation worked with an interfaith coalition to bring about changes in the city’s towing and impound policies, which targeted immigrants), and as of yet has no building of its own.
In Boston, Temple Israel’s Riverway Project is geared toward the millennial generation, with a focus on worship, intensive Jewish text study, and social action activities and events held outside the synagogue building, in an area where younger Jews are more likely to live.
While he’s not certain exactly what shape the Jewish community will look like in the next generation, Olitzky is certain that 21st-century Judaism is in an era of transition. “We don’t know when this era will conclude,” he says. “The only thing we can be sure of is when the transition concludes, the Jewish community will not look anything like it did before.”