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How are Jews Practicing Religion Today?

Rabbi Mitch Malkus

How are Jews Practicing Religion Today?

I had the opportunity this last month to read Jack Wertheimer's recently published The New American Judaism, a broad ethnographic study of how American Jews practice their religion. In order to understand the lived experience of Jews in 21st Century America, Wertheimer interviewed over 200 rabbis from across the religious spectrum, observed countless synagogues and community events, and drew upon recent survey data and contemporary studies. Professor Wertheimer, who teaches Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has written extensively on modern Jewish history, is an expert observer of the American Jewish scene.

Wertheimer's presents "Let My People Sing", an annual gathering in the Berkshire mountain range that draws Haredi, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and adherents from every Jewish expression of religious thought and practice in the United States as a paradigmatic representation of the trends in 21st Century Jewish America. The event is pluralistic, attracting a wide range of Jews interested in learning about and from each other. Traditional and contemporary melodies are sung. Wertheimer sees in the event a "remixing" of elements, media, approaches and technologies. His observations of contemporary Jewish life lead him to suggest that we are living in a period of remixing, something that he describes "at times is subversive, and at other times pays homage to traditional Judaism."

Pluralistic Jewish education is not new to this idea of mixing or remixing different aspects of Judaism to create a rich tapestry for learners from a diversity of backgrounds. From my vantage point as Head of School at the largest pluralistic day school in the country, I have the opportunity to watch this remix on a daily basis. Some of this takes place on a curricular level. One example from my school is a beginning collaboration with California Polytechnic University in studying the use of robotics instruction to problem-solve for social and environmental action. Students will use robots to problem solve and test ideas for people with disabilities. This example involves students engaging in STEM learning for tz'dakah and tikkun olam is at the edge of the remixing on an educational level.

Sometimes this remixing appears in student programming. Just the other day I was walking through the halls at the Upper School and saw a flier for Relaxation Rosh Hodesh. The Mental Health Awareness Club indicates that its first session is Mindfulness + Meditation Monday. The students themselves are mixing contemporary practices for spirituality with Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of the Jewish new month.

To a great extent, what is reflected in the corridors and classrooms in Jewish day schools is a reflection of the broader trends that Wertheimer has richly documented in his research. At the same time, the programs and the students are the next generation that will be adding to the emergent remix in American Jewish life. As we watch American Jewish life develop in the coming decades, so much of what we will see will involve the creative (re)mixing of traditional ideas, concepts, and forms with contemporary practices.

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