Over the course of the twentieth century, a network of Jewish philanthropic organizations gradually came to dominate and define the American Jewish collective. At the center of this network are Jewish community charity federations, which first emerged in the late nineteenth century and reached their apex of power in the decades following World War II. Even in the face of significant intra-Jewish diversity and rapid assimilation and secularization, participation in these communal agencies, which became known as the "federation system," helped to create and reproduce a cohesive and powerful American Jewish community. (1) Writing in 1976, political scientist Daniel Elazar understood the federation system as an American Jewish polity--a corporate, non-state political actor. (2) Writing a decade later, Jonathan Woocher applied Robert Bellah's terminology and identified American Jewish philanthropy as a form of "civil religion," a set of solidifying symbols, rituals, and practices. (3)
It is now widely believed that this network, and, by extension the American Jewish community itself, is in decline. This perception has led to Jewish communal handwringing, to a pervasive sense of anxiety, and to massive investments in Jewish continuity initiatives. Jewish social scientists and policymakers have pointed to generational shifts, in which younger Jews forsake Jewish communal loyalties and practices, as a primary explanation for this decline. Such a formulation frames Jewish identification as untethered from communal norms and, instead, increasingly grounded in individual choice and personal experience. Dana Kaplan, for example, argues that, now unmoored from the Jewish "essence" of communal norms, "individual religious autonomy allows each Jew to interpret his or her own Judaism. American Jews are then free to mold their Judaism to fit their personal needs, privatizing a religion that has always stressed the collective." (4) In a similar vein, sociologists
Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen write:
The principal authority for contemporary American Jews, in the absence of compelling religious norms and communal loyalties, has become the sovereign self. Each person now performs the labor of fashioning his or her own self, pulling together elements from the various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available, rather than stepping into an "inescapable framework" of identity (familial, communal, traditional) given at birth. (5) These scholarly appraisals have become incorporated into Jewish communal discourses and policy decisions aimed at reversing this trend. Take, for example, Adults Emerging: New Paradigms for Millennial Engagement, a Jewish Federation report published in zoi6. The report describes Jewish millennials in the following terms:
Millennials have a different way of doing things. They are digital natives: no landlines, no TVs, lots of Facetime. Many are wanderers, moving from job to job and place to place, testing and experimenting. They seek diversity; they are disinterested in Jewish-only relationships; they are cultural relativists. Perhaps most significantly, their personal experience reigns. They push away inherited behaviors, such as belonging to synagogues or JCCs or giving to Federation. Instead, they spend resources and capital as an expression of their sense of self. (6) Jewish philanthropic investments in reversing assimilation are often directed at creating programs that assume that Jewish identity for young Jews is defined by choice. Rather than existing in contrast to or outside of communal institutions and norms, we argue that individual choice has, in fact, become integrated into them. To illustrate how, we analyze three formal institutional frameworks within which young Jews can now consume and produce highly individualized Jewish experiences. By "frameworks," we mean metacultural practices and structures that foster Jewish cultural production, biosocial reproduction and Jewish communal continuity. (7) First, we examine "episodes": curated, philanthropy subsidized, short-term Jewish experiences. Next, we look at "incubators": leadership programs that support nascent Jewish nonprofits and nonprofit leaders. During our research, episodes and incubators served as ethnographic field sites, that is, locations where we could observe the production and consumption of new Jewish choices. Finally, we offer a portrait of the Jewish "innovator": an emerging category of Jewish leader who draws on philanthropic support to add to the menu of institutionally-mediated forms of Jewish self-expression. These frameworks, we contend, deconstruct the binary opposition between institutions and individuals posited by scholars, communal professionals, and policy documents like "Adults Emerging." To be sure, we do not claim that episodes, incubators, and innovators constitute the sum total of formal frameworks in which individual choice is mobilized to support Jewish cultural production and reproduction. Such an account is beyond the scope of this article. However, taken together, these three frameworks suggest a field of cultural production in which individual choice has become integrated into emergent communal organizations and structures.
The patterns described in this article are not unique to the American Jewish community. We connect the proliferation of these frameworks in the field of American Jewish culture-making to broader political, economic, and cultural transformations that scholars have described under the rubric of "neoliberalism." Building on anthropological work on neoliberalism, we understand the concept not just as a set of economic principles but also as a pervasive cultural system that, in the American Jewish community, defines the relationship between young Jews and Jewish institutions. In other words, an expansive, cultural understanding of neoliberalism drives our understanding of recent Jewish history. Ultimately, episodes, incubators, and innovators help illustrate how Jewish philanthropy structures the choices young Jews make about their identities, thereby complicating the assumption that "sovereign" selves cultivate contemporary American Jewish identity.
This collaboration is the result of surprising overlaps we noticed while discussing our work on our respective ethnographic projects. Kornfeld had conducted fieldwork on Jewish responses to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast; (8) Friedman had focused on the role of nonprofits in Yiddish cultural and linguistic reproduction, a topic he explored in the New York City metropolitan area and at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (9) Despite formulating these research topics independently, and working in different regions of the country, we began to notice important similarities. In particular, we noticed that we had spent much of our time as ethnographers in recently established Jewish spaces designed to encourage Jewish identity and identification among Jewish college students and twenty-somethings. These spaces were, in many ways, products of historical shifts in the structure of American Jewish philanthropy. Specifically, they were funded by, or in search of funding from, private American Jewish family foundations and wealthy independent donors. As we came to realize, we were not only conducting research solely into cultural dynamics specific to our respective topics; we were studying American Jewish culture production under the sway of neoliberalism.
The Political Economy of American Jewry
In anthropological discourse, the term "neoliberalism" has emerged as a central yet vaguely defined concept. In a review essay, Tejaswini Ganti emphasizes this lack of clarity when she identifies four main referents for the term and five distinct contexts within which the term is applied. In contrast to the concept of "late capitalism," neoliberalism can be understood both as a set of policies and as a prescriptive ideology that has a range of implications beyond the economic field narrowly defined. As a set of policies, neoliberalism describes economic reforms that favor deregulation and privatization and "a prescriptive development model" that reimagines the roles of the state, labor, and capital. (10) In these policy-oriented formulations, advocates of neoliberalism envision a narrow role for the state, which ideally confines its activities to guaranteeing "the quality and integrity of money" as well as "those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets." (11) Neoliberal development policies, anthropologists often note, have "tremendous economic, social, and political implications" and tend to lead to the concentration of wealth at the very top socioeconomic stratum. Moving from policy to ideology, neoliberalism is described as "a mode of governance" that applies free market principles as "the model for effective and efficient government." Lastly, and of particular significance for this analysis, neoliberal ideology valorizes market principles as virtues that should serve as the primary "guide to all human action." (12)
With the definitions above, anthropologists consider the implementation of neoliberal policies in concrete economic and political contexts such as development in the global south and post-socialist transformations in Eurasia. Additionally, and of particular significance for our purposes, are contexts within which neoliberalism figures as a sociocultural process related to "the production of selves and subjectivities" and to "the ways that culture and cultural difference are commodified to accrue profit." (13) David Harvey notes that "[n]eoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills." (14) As political...