American Jewish Life, 1980-2000

Political and Social Integration

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Religious and Educational Innovation

The American Jewish community also celebrated a period of religious and educational creativity during this period. American Jews seeking religious, ethnic, or cultural involvement in the late 20th century had a plethora of choices available to them. Synagogues--both within and outside of the movements--put renewed emphasis on the individual's worship experience.

Composer and performer Shlomo Carlebach, whose Hasidic-style music was infused with warmth and spirituality, enjoyed popularity across denominations. Carlebach and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi contributed to the growth of Jewish Renewal, a non-denominational movement with roots in Hasidism, which emphasized the experience of the worshipper above all else.

Orthodoxy continued to thrive and diversify, particularly Chabad. Under the dynamic leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Rebbe), the Chabad-Lubavitch movement grew both in the United States and worldwide. Many unaffiliated American Jews who visited Chabad houses experienced Chabad's enthusiasm for Jewish learning and life. When Schneerson died in 1994 no one succeeded him as Rebbe. The movement still flourished, despite the fact that years after his death, many Lubavitch Jews still consider Schneerson the Messiah.

Also in this period, greater numbers of American Jews participated in programs of Jewish learning. The day school movement expanded rapidly, encompassing both movement-sponsored and pluralistic institutions. Innovative adult learning programs such as Me'ah, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, and Wexner Heritage flourished. Informal Jewish learning programs--such as Jewish camps, Israel trips, and youth groups--were key transmitters of Jewish heritage to teens and young adults. Beginning in 2000, the Taglit-Birthright Israel program founded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt offered free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26.

A New Feminism

The feminist movement also had an enormous influence on Jewish religious expression and the expanding definition of the Jewish family. Slowly but steadily, women became equal participants in the synagogue service and in its leadership circles. The Conservative movement ordained its first woman rabbi in 1985 (13 years after the Reform movement graduated Sally Priesand). Many adult Jewish women read Torah for the first time as adult b'not mitzvah in the 1980s, having been denied the opportunity years earlier by non-egalitarian practices.

Orthodox Jewish women created their own definitions of feminism. In 1997, Blu Greenberg founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), the mission of which is to "expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha."

Gender-neutral language accounted for the thorough revision of many siddurim. For instance, in 1996, the Reform movement revised Gates of Prayer to include gender-sensitive language. The name of God was no longer translated as "He," but simply as "God."

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.