In 1985, Robert Bellah co-authored a book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, which highlighted the centrality of personal autonomy and individual choice in America. As an example of this widespread phenomenon, he described a nurse, Sheila Larson, who "has actually named her religion (she calls it her 'faith') after herself."
In her words, "My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."
More than 20 years later, "Sheilaism" continues to characterize American social and religious life. The Jewish community is not unaffected by this phenomen. In fact, research continues to show that Jews are at the forefront of this trend in America, more than members of any other major religious group.
"Jews were considerably more privatized than either Protestants or Catholics," contemporary American sociologists of religion Bruce Greer and Wade Clark Roof reported in a 1992 study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
In other words, a higher percentage of Jews determined what Judaism meant to them than Catholics determined what Catholicism was for them and Protestants what Protestantism was for them. Jews are most likely to exercise their freedom of choice in defining the substance of their religion.
The principal authority for contemporary American Jews — in the absence of compelling religious norms and communal loyalties — has become the sovereign self. Each person pulls together elements from various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available, rather than step into an "inescapable framework" of identity — familial, communal, traditional — given at birth.
There are no longer any norms that are compelling; there are no loyalties, no fundamental givens. "The sovereign self" reigns supreme; religious involvement is a journey, and each Jew decides for her or himself what Judaism means.
We are blessed by the multiplicity of choices that America affords us; we are also challenged by them. Two or three generations ago, our challenge — and obligation — seems to have been more clearly defined. But today is different. While some of these Jewish communal agenda items remain relevant, we face an additional challenge. For us, the problem is not how to adjust our people to the manners and mores of society, but how to keep them from vanishing into the abyss of that society.
We have come a long way from 1969, when a group of young Jewish activists forced their way into the General Assembly of what was then the Council of Jewish Federations to demand greater investment in Jewish education, to chastise the Jewish establishment for being insufficiently Jewish in its priorities.
Our collective communal priorities have indeed shifted to appreciate the importance of ensuring "Jewish continuity" by allocating significantly more communal dollars in support of day schools and adult Jewish learning. But more work needs to be done to inspire so many more to engage with us in the beauty and meaning of Jewishness.
In a word, today we face a challenge of balance: balancing engagement with the universal elements of American culture with the content of our Jewish commitments, and, in particular, balancing local priorities with national and international needs.
Our rabbis teach of a hierarchy to charity. Aniyei irkha kodmin — "the poor of your city take priority" — but the poor of other cities also have a claim on our charity dollar, as do broader national and international Jewish concerns.
It is here, in this context, that we can appreciate the vital importance of the umbrella organization now called the United Jewish Communities. Who else has the larger picture in mind but the UJC? Who else can mount an effort to rescue endangered Jewish populations around the world but the UJC? Who else can generate substantial political and economic support for a besieged and beleaguered Israel but the UJC?
As valuable as personal giving and individual volunteerism is, engagement with the broader agenda of the Jewish people is also important — it's vital!
Although a cliché, there is much truth in the phrase: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter is a professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Yeshiva University.