What will Jewish life be like in 2040?
Future gazing

What will Jewish life be like in 2040?

Spiritual guides, Jewish educators and residents share thoughts on future of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.

Will the future look like the past? Paul Drindell drives a Hebrew Institute bus carrying, among others, Dr. Solomon Abrams (left), future executive director of the Institute and his brother, Dr. Ellis Abrams (extreme right), c.1922. (Photo courtesy of Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh Photographs, Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center)
Will the future look like the past? Paul Drindell drives a Hebrew Institute bus carrying, among others, Dr. Solomon Abrams (left), future executive director of the Institute and his brother, Dr. Ellis Abrams (extreme right), c.1922. (Photo courtesy of Hebrew Institute of Pittsburgh Photographs, Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center)

In 1964, Look magazine, in an article titled “The Vanishing American Jew,” predicted that there would be no Jews left in the United States by the rise of the 21st century.

Now, with the dawn of the third decade of the 2000’s, we can rest assured that Judaism remains alive and well in America, at least for now. But what will it look like in 20 years? We asked local spiritual guides, Jewish educators and residents to weigh in on their vision of the future of the Jewish community in 2040. Thoughts ranged from denominational disappearances to technological innovations and population shifts. Whether the ideas shared prove to be actual prognostications or guesses gone wrong only time will tell.

“By 2040 I think that Jewish life will be more global and less local, which has already been a trend,” said Rabbi Amy Bardack, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Jewish Life and Learning. “I think there will be an influx of Jewish Pittsburghers who are not from the area — people seeking Jewish life in contexts that are different from our current offerings and institutions.”

Those who come here, and those presently in Pittsburgh, will certainly access Jewish life in new ways, predicted Rabbi Aaron Meyer, of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.

“Legacy organizations, including my synagogue, are in many ways, the taxi cabs of Jewish life,” he said. “We don’t know what our communities’ Uber and Lyft are going to be, but we know that if demographic and engagement trends continue, that level of disruption will happen. I think organizations unable to both adapt and ultimately encourage that type of ingenuity are simply going to cease to exist.”

The future doesn’t bode well for some elements of 20th century Jewish life, said Rabbi Danny Schiff, Federation’s Foundation Scholar, who predicted a collapse of denominational identities like Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

“There will, of course, be some pockets of strength that will remain here and there, but for the most part they will be gone.”

Schiff pointed to comments he shared with the Chronicle five years ago: “Only those persistent, consistent and focused enough to have a reasonably robust connection to Jewish practices or activities will remain a part of Jewishness in any way that counts.”

Homestead historian Tammy Hepps also thinks portions of Jewish life will vanish by 2040.

“I don’t think there is a future for non-Orthodox Judaism as we know it today, but I do think there is a future for non-Orthodox Jewish people identifying strongly as Jewish,” Hepps said. “I’m trying to imagine what that would look like here, based on a comparison with other communities like Israel today or interwar Poland. I’m trying to guess what is possible in a community without the grounding those communities have/had in Jewish languages and culture, as well as what can develop in a place at such a distance, both geographically and culturally, from today’s centers of Jewish creativity.”

Of course, any discussion of a Jewish future has to include Israel, said Alan Menaged, a 2019 Carnegie Mellon University graduate.

“I think that especially with rising anti-Semitism in both Europe and the United States, a lot of Jews are going to turn to Israel as a place of safety and comfort,” he said. In turn, Israel “will adjust its policies to be more open to connections with the global Jewish community.”

Menaged, a Carnegie Mellon math major who works as a technology analyst at Roivant Sciences in New York, noted Israel’s impact will be evidenced by the number of people who move there and the reaction of remaining Diaspora residents.

“I think there are definitely going to be some communities that if a significant group makes aliyah will end up looking more like Pittsburgh, in terms of building closer connections between Jews of different backgrounds and Jews of different streams,” he said. “Shared experience, either through connection to Israel or anti-Semitism, will bring these disconnected groups together.”

Will the future resemble the past? David Busis in front of his pharmacy. Photo courtesy of Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Technology will serve a similarly unifying force, predicted Danielle Kranjec of Hillel JUC.

But how that will happen is “the key question that we’re all struggling to figure out,” Meyer said. “On the one hand, we understand that individuals can connect in a decentralized way on their own time and form niche groups specific to their interest, and at the same time Judaism shows us the meaning of relationships taken offline, and that the concept of a minyan in prayer translates to many different activities throughout Jewish life.

“And so whether we’ll see people being willing to step back from a completely online engagement and re-engage with communities, or whether there will be technology we haven’t even thought of that further changes the game it’s anybody’s guess.”

If history is any indicator, technology is likely to mirror or to build upon some current uses, like those of OneTable — an organization that uses a digital platform to build community around Friday night dinners. But “Judaism is very special in that there are some traditions that go back thousands of years and there’s no reason they will change,” said Menaged. “The ways that Jews connect to Jews and each other is very ingrained, and by 2040 I can’t imagine a lot of that changing.”

The difference will be “multiple onramps to Jewish life beyond the current organizations and institutions we have,” said Bardack.

So many unknowns remain as to what will be in 2040, but current signs point to a promising future, she continued: “There is every reason for this area to remain a cohesive Jewish community and a Jewish community that continues to grow and evolve.”

Rabbi Yossi Berkowitz, of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, agreed.

“Based on my experience here in the last eight years, I see a lot of growth in the Jewish community remaining connected and remaining strong,” said Berkowitz. “There’s a vibrant Jewish life in Pittsburgh that bodes well for a good future.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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