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Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging

'A cogent vision of how to revitalize the faith' --Publishers Weekly
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"Strong debut . . . this nuanced portrait of the state of American Judaism proffers a cogent vision of how to revitalize the faith." --Publisher's Weekly 

Why are religious organizations on the decline? What changes have caused many of them to lose touch with modern spiritual needs?  What does it take to remain relevant in today's world? Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt take on these and other critical questions facing religion today. And they have answers that are frank and yet surprisingly upbeat.

Nearly every facet of American Jewish life--and of American religious life in general--faces both disruption and great prospects for renewal. In every corner of our community, Jewish identity, wisdom, ritual, and power are being remixed and reimagined. As centralized authority declines, American Judaism moves and grows in a multitude of directions. 

As technology reduces the importance of geographic boundaries, new opportunities for connection and new modes of exercising power emerge. New mixtures of ancient Jewish practice and modern needs are beginning to shape the renewal of American Judaism, widening access to Jewish wisdom and ritual, transforming Jewish consumers into Jewish co-creators, and building new networks of Jewish belonging.

The initial purposes that inspired much of the American Jewish infrastructure are now falling victim to their own success. 

An emphasis on nostalgia and authenticity encourages us to mythologize the past and narrow our awareness of the present. A focus on buildings and centralized power by much of American Judaism reflects the realities of a century ago.

In understanding what keeps these organizations mired in the past, we can unearth a new purpose to unify the American Diaspora and guide it toward a new golden age. 


The Foreword by Rev. Kaji Dousa, Senior Pastor of Park Avenue Christian Church, asks what a Black pastor can add to the work of two white rabbis, and the answer is that "cherished thinking needs a hard look everywhere. Particularly as we rightly orient our resources to protecting the good, to eliminating poverty that need not exist, to eradicating the hatred that threatens the very existence of our people--we need to look, together. Blacks and Jews and those living in the intersections therein will only survive and thrive with the survival and thriving of each other. So, of course, it makes sense that we will awaken, together."


The Afterword by Dr. Eboo Patel, Founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core cites the story of Rabbi Akiva, who "did not mourn when he saw the ruins of the Temple but rather was delighted. 'We always knew these stones must come down. In order to move forward, this had to fall apart first. Now we can begin.' All of our religions have history and theology like this. I think about the emergence of everything from Catholic orders to Sufi tariqas--renewal movements that changed the map of entire religions. We are at that same point again. Rabbis Stanton and Spratt propose we meet the moment with the generosity and power that are at the heart of all our religions. Their work gives me confidence that we can."

About the Authors

Rabbi Joshua Stanton is the Spiritual co-Leader of East End Temple in New York and Senior Fellow of CLAL, the National Center of Learning and Leadership. Together with Rabbi Benjamin Spratt he writes a column for Religion News Service. 

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. 


The future of American Judaism looks bright, contend rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt in their strong debut. The authors argue that the “seeds of a new Jewish awakening” lie with “those cast to the margins of the American Diaspora” because of their gender, sexual orientation, or race. Stanton and Spratt highlight historical reinventions of Judaism that created new options for religious affiliation while facilitating the continuity of tradition, such as when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan officiated the first modern bat mitzvah and helped found one of the first Jewish community centers in the early 20th century.

Emphasizing the importance of accepting marginalized Jewish people as part of this renewal, the authors tell the stories of such contemporary figures as rabbi Mike Moskowitz, whose stand against Jewish day schools’ expulsion of trans students cost him his job at a synagogue, and Eleyna Fugman, who created a Jewish leadership program to boost the voices of queer Jewish people and Jewish people of color. Stanton and Spratt only summarily address the obstacles that their inclusive definitions of Judaism face, such as the impact of the Israeli rabbinate’s position on the matter, but nonetheless, this nuanced portrait of the state of American Judaism proffers a cogent vision of how to revitalize the faith. This is a persuasive case to maintain a positive outlook on the future of Judaism. --Publishers Weekly


Read more from Rabbis Stanton and Spratt.

The New Jewish AwakeningAugust 1, 2022. Tablet Magazine

  • Our obsession with the narrative of our community's decline overlooks threads of optimism and opportunity.

A Saint-Soldier Defending Sikhs and Reviving the American Melting Pot. July 15, 2022. Religion News Service

  • The Sikh Coalition was born in the hours after 9/11, out of self-defense. It’s become an outward-looking force promoting the core American value of being able to practice faith without fear.

How the Catholic Church Transformed American Jewish Life. July 1, 2022. Religion News Service.

  •  Sixty years ago, the Catholic Church was the largest ideologically antisemitic organization in the world. Many of its leaders and adherents publicly blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. Today, it is the largest philosemitic organization in the world. It presents the jewish community as a siblig of faith.

 American Judaism is in Decline, and That's Great News for American Jews. June 6, 2022, Ha'Aretz

  • Synagogues closing, rising intermarriage, deepening denominational and political rifts: That's one way to tell the story of today's American Jewish Diaspora. But there's another thrilling, remarkable tale we should be telling.

Edifice Rex  May 18, 2022, eJewishPhilanthropy

  • Our own communities are blessed to reside in beautiful spaces. These buildings gift us with safety and belonging, fill us with awe and connect us to the past. They can affirm the beauty of our faith and imagine more fully the glory of the historic pilgrimages to a central Temple in Jerusalem.

Oxford Interfaith Forum: Rabbi Akiva and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy of Redemption. May 16, 2022

Who's 'Really' Jewish: The Sefardi Floridian, The Ashkenazi californian, or the New York Jew by Choice? Authenticy iIs a Trap.  May 12. 2022, Religion Dispatches

  • In mythologizing the look and sound of a ‘real’ Jew, and the feeling of the ‘real’ ritual, we diminish the depth and diversity of Judaism, and place Jewishness into narrow focus. The authenticity trap encourages myopia and ducks the inherent complexity and re-mixings found throughout Jewish history. It serves to bolster the identity of the few at the cost of belonging for so many others; and while it plays into the insecurities of modern American Judaism, it does so at the expense of seeing a Judaism that is more than a selective retrospective gaze.

An Immigrant Musim Finds His Model of Empowerment in Black American Islam. May 10, 2022. Religion News Service

  • One in a new series of interviews with contemporary faith-based leaders reinventing American faith.

An Awakening is Coming to American Religion. You Won't Hear about It from the Pulpit. April 12, 2022, Religion News Service

  • The future of American religion resides with innovative lay leaders who focus on empowerment, rather than power.

Evangelical Christians Looking for Renewal Should Look to the Margins, February 18, 2022. Religion News Service

  • The crisis of church and synagogue is not a crisis of faith, so much as a crisis of purpose.


Foreword by Rev. Kaji Dousa

Introduction: Diaspora Aglow

Part 1: Purpose Petrified

  Chapter 1: Peddling Nostalgia as Salvation

  Chapter 2: The Authenticity Trap

  Chapter 3: Edifice Rex

  Chapter 4: Power Dynamics

Part 2: Transformations

  Chapter 5: Blessings and Curses

  Chapter 6: Prominence and Vulnerability

  Chapter 7: Israel and Diaspora

  Chapter 8: Sharing Power

  Chapter 9: Connecting Identities

  Chapter 10: Creative Destruction

Part 3: Renewing

  Chapter 11: Spiritual Renewal

  Chapter 12: Reclaiming Practices

  Chapter 13: Connecting from Afar

  Chapter 14: Praying with Our Feet

  Chapter 15: Studying as Sacred Practice

Part 4: The Unfolding Awakening

  Chapter 16: Reaching

  Chapter 17: Being

  Chapter 18: Belonging

  Chapter 19: Joining Together

  Chapter 20: Feeling at Home

  Chapter 21: Leading

Conclusion: Co-creating a New Center

Appendix 1: A Call to Action

Appendix 2: A Brief History of Jewish Awakenings

Afterword by Dr. Eboo Patel