The Story of Judaism in America

April 11, 2004

Source: Beliefnet

On April 11, 2004 Beliefnet published an interview with historian Jonathan Sarna on how American ideals and institutions shaped Judaism. He notes, "There have been quite a few histories of American Jews—that is, the Jewish people in America. But strangely we have not had, in half a century, a serious work on American Judaism, the religion of American Jews. How has it developed? How has it changed? What is its relationship to American religion? How has it been influenced by American Protestantism? Where does it stand today? People who study American religion really have very little sense of how Judaism fits in to that story. How Jews have been affected by the great turning points—the various awakenings, the Civil War, the women's movement, and so forth. American Judaism is distinctive. It's very different than Judaism is in Israel or Europe... The whole structure of American Judaism, with different movements or denominations and no central authority, suggests that American Judaism is influenced by Protestantism. Anybody is free, without seeking permission from any chief rabbi or any government office, to open up their own synagogue and to worship God as a Jew in the way that they think best. It is very much a reflection of church-state separation and the way religion developed in the wake of the American Revolution."