The COVID-19 pandemic, antisemitism and the impact of technology and social media on how it has reshaped the lives and places of those who express themselves though a religious lens has Judaism, as well as other religions, experiencing a fundamental rethinking in the place of religion in American culture and society.

Those challenges and how Judaism is responding were the focus of a talk by Steven Windmueller, a professor emeritus of Jewish communal service. He was the featured speaker at the 6th annual Rabbi Hillel Cohn Lecture Series on the Contemporary Jewish Experience, presented by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Cal State San Bernardino.

“Reflections on a Revolution: Unpacking 21st Century American Judaism” was the title of Windmueller’s talk – which looked at the Jewish community as it undergoes a major religious, cultural and structural transformation. He spoke on the factors contributing to this new normal and how issues such as antisemitism, Israel and assimilation contribute to these major changes.

The program was held at the CSUSB Santos Manuel Student Union North on April 19.

Windmueller talked about how he believes the American Jewish experience, as with Christianity and Islam in this society, is often tied to some specific moments to events that shape how religions manage and move through the venue and lenses of society in the Jewish context that’s expressed in a number of situations.

He talked about in the U.S. colonial period and George Washington’s letter to the Jewish community of Newport.

“It is an extraordinary statement about the notion of acceptance of human behavior requiring a kind of openness to diversity of religious thought and practice,” Windmueller said. “And he speaks about the children of Abraham, as he refers to them, and their opportunity to live in a free and open environment free of bigotry or hate.”

He added that along with the first amendments in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and Article Six “to the question of no religious tests will be placed on anyone seeking public office, reminding ourselves that this would be, for the Jewish community and for other religious communities, the one society in the Western world that would decouple religious obligation or behavior with citizenship or participation in the public square.”

He said that it helped frame a particular way by which the community could embrace and engage in the American story.

“The distinctiveness of American Judaism is that it would develop its own identity, different from European Jewry drawing upon those experiences, but ultimately shaping American Judaism as something distinctively, unique to this society and to the changing generations that would help to create, nurture and mobilize,” he said.

Another historical period that impacted American Judaism was between the period of 1948 and 1985.

“American Jews really had a shared set of agendas to deal with the memories, experiences and outcomes of the Holocaust to understand what it may mean to be part of a post Holocaust generation,” he said.

Those agendas included to affirm and support the existence of a Jewish state, and to bring to freedom those Jews who were still locked in various forms of isolation and denial of their expression, whether it was Jews in the Soviet Union or Jews from Ethiopia or Jews living in Arab lands.

“In all cases, the goal of the community was to ensure the kind of liberation of Jewish peoplehood,” Windmueller said.

He said it affirmed remembering the past and building toward a future. And it created “American Jews who are assimilated, engaged and involved both as Americans but as Jews in this sort of commonality of goals internally, and to the collective society's interest as a whole,” he said.

But starting in 1985, and roughly for the next 20 years, Windmueller said we have seen the “fastest and most significant growth in American religion of new expressions of religious output, if you wish, boutique organizations with single-issue agendas emerging not only in American Judaism but in Christianity and in other parts of the religious cycles.”

He said religious life today is sort of changing from the church-based or synagogue-based models to a host of single-issue constituencies and to the emergence of particular interests on the part of donors to embrace particular cause, whether it has to do with education or culture environment or whether it deals with notions of Jewish learning.

“The interesting thing about these hundreds of new Jewish organizations that came into existence in the 20-to-25-year period from 1985 forward is that it would change the construct of the American Jewish theme. It would shift the Jewish community as being a kind of central decision-making and organizing framework to a highly decentralized emergent of a variety of agendas and influence,” Windmueller said. “The shift would be fundamental to reshaping the American Jewish story and it would lead to what I believe to be the revolution we’re now experiencing.”

He said the challenges to the middle class in particular – looking at the data of a smaller American middle class and a shift of how the economy itself has reshaped where wealth is situated and how in fact the distribution of resources has happened in this society – we have seen what is called the decline of American religious.

“The religiosity question was that in 1970, Americans, according to Pew, accounted for 93% of us who were affiliated, church-affiliated, synagogue-affiliated, mosque-affiliated,” Windmueller said. “But by the time we come to the 21st century, 30 years later, and now the additional 20 years into this century, we have seen a huge transition from that 93% of affiliation to religious institutional life to under 63%, telling us clearly that people are walking – walking away from traditional religious expression and participation.”

He said part of the shift was having to do with demographic change, such as older Americans remaining far more religiously connected than younger Americans.

But what wasn’t expected, and began earlier than the pandemic, was the flight from large cities.

“So, what we would see and what we could document were that Americans of the middle class in particular were saying at the time of the pandemic, ‘For sure, I don’t need to live so close to work because I can work via my home, via Zoom.’”

That also included lifestyle patterns.

“Lifestyle patterns of those who are 40 and above are very much sort of segregated and patterned around different interests. ‘So yes, I have an interest in particular kinds of culture or sports or music or art, and I have an interest in my professional enterprise,’ a view younger Americans don’t segregate those ideas,” Windmueller said.

While there are various aspects to lifestyle changes, Windmueller said the losers are often mainline churches and synagogues.

“We have seen a downsizing of synagogue affiliation and patterns of belonging on the part of churches and synagogues in the United States over this period of these years. And that is the transition that I think is leading increasingly to the revolution that we’re approaching,” he said. “For Jews, there are some particular channels, some particular concerns. A divided society, the threat of antisemitism, the loss of a sense of communal consensus.”

Windmueller said that “American Jews are no longer holding to a set of core accepted ideas that they all share as primary to their interest as a society and as their interest as a community. And certainly the loss of trust. Now, political scientists are telling us that trust is a very important glue to a civilization and culture.”

He added that from 1970 forward the Americans have lost faith in leaders, in government, in educational systems, in churches and synagogues, have lost a sense of belief in some of the values that they felt were sort of core to their identities as Americans and to their identities as Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“This trust factor is profoundly important because when it doesn’t exist and when people question the role of the synagogue, the idea of who is a leader in a community or whether or not they can believe in a particular set of ideas, that is profoundly challenging to the infrastructure of a democracy,” he said.

From these challenges he said the result was “privatized Judaism, which we see that in Christianity as well. Privatized Judaism is that people are going online and finding their Jewish expression and experience through all the portals that are available to them.”

But data suggesting this phenomenon that while the synagogue numbers are decreasing, the interest in spirituality and Jewish culture and community is accelerating.

“But it is not accelerating through institutional affiliation. It is this privatized or individualized set of expressions that young Jews 22 to 40 are uncovering as they sort of create their own alternative communities within or in family or in connection with a particular group of folks that they have bonded as part of their community of gathering,” he said.

Windmueller said another aspect of the changes was the rise of antisemitism. He said the Anti-Defamation League, in its most recent public survey of 2022, revealed the extraordinary and sad developments of the growth of these incidents, “where they are reporting that as many as seven incidents a day are taking place at a 30% increase year over year, raises the ongoing consideration of this as a challenge to our community.”

He said, based on the Pew report and the American Jewish Committee study on American Jewish attitudes, that 80% of American Jews “are deeply concerned about this, but Americans are as well as society. The AJC study on American attitudes about antisemitism reflect a similar concern that this is unhealthy for the society and highly problematic for the Jewish community.

“How this will be understood and resolved is an open-ended question, part of our revolutionary journey and part of the uncertainties of what it may be to be Jewish in America in the 21st century,” Windmueller said. “How one deals with Israel in the context of hate, how one deals with the public presence of being Jewish on the street in an environment where the street has become potentially dangerous, and how one secures institutions in a safe and responsible way, allowing people to come in, yet in some measure limiting the door to access.”

Windmueller’s research has primarily focused on Jewish communal trends, antisemitism and Jewish political behavior. He is the author of numerous books and articles, which have appeared in a number of secular and Jewish publications. He was awarded a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.

His books include “You Shall Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Relations Workbook,” “Predictability to Chaos?? How American Jewish Leaders Reinvented their National Jewish Communal System,” “In this Time and In this Place: American Jewry 3.0” and “The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice.”

He recently served as the editor on a volume for USC’s Casden Institute examining the “Impact of Donald Trump’s Presidency on American Jews,” and is now focused on producing a volume analyzing 21st century Jewish ideas.

During his tenure at Hebrew Union College, Windmueller served for 10 years as the director of its School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and in 2005 was named to the deanship of the Los Angeles campus (2006-2010).

Currently, Windmueller is consulting with national agencies, federations, synagogues and foundations in connection with his current studies on virtual and privatized Judaism, the impact of COVID, and the broader social, economic and political trends reshaping American Jewish life.

Windmueller serves as a fellow of the Jerusalem Institute of Public Affairs and as a board member of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles. For the past six years, he has been on the faculty of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, teaching across the globe.

The Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience was established at Cal State San Bernardino in 2017 in recognition of Cohn’s many achievements as a religious and community leader. It was the first time in the history of the entire California State University system that a rabbi has been so honored.

Cohn has been active in many community organizations in the San Bernardino area, including the Institutional Review Board at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and the Diocesan Health Care Committee of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino. He was the founding chairperson of the City of San Bernardino Human Relations Commission.

Cohn also has produced and hosted “The Many Faces of San Bernardino: Dialogues on Diversity,” a regular half-hour program on KCSB (Channel 3). He was one of the founders of Inland Congregations United for Change and currently serves as a board member of The Community Foundation of Riverside and San Bernardino, Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, The Unforgettables Foundation and The Brightest Star.

In 2014, Cohn was one of six inductees selected for the CSUSB College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Hall of Fame and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2017.

A native of Germany, Cohn was brought to the United States as an infant by his parents who were refugees from Nazism. Cohn grew up in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California and received a B.A. in political science from UCLA in 1959. He received rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1963 and received a master’s degree. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Claremont School of Theology in 1984, specializing in ethics and communication. In 1988 he was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree by the Hebrew Union College.

For more information on the Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007.