Rethinking the Jewish communal enterprise

We are facing a set of unknown and complex challenges that will fundamentally redefine our institutions and recalibrate our community as we move forward.

Young American Jews. Credit: SeeSaw GmbH/Shutterstock.
Young American Jews. Credit: SeeSaw GmbH/Shutterstock.
Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller

We are living through an extraordinary moment of Jewish communal realignment—everything is in play. These shifts are significant and profound, and impact all sectors of our community. External elements, such as generational behaviors, cultural motifs and technological innovations are being unleashed all at once. The impulses here are global, yet most of the outcomes we experience are local. This survey article seeks to incorporate earlier work reflective of these core issues, while it references new data and identifies emergent trends.

Contemporary change theory seeks to explain such transformational patterns. What we have learned is that when institutions are simultaneously overwhelmed by internal challenges and external realities, the change process is no longer systematized. Disruptive change alters the ability of organizations to effectively manage the process. At times, institutions lead from behind, seeking to regain coherence, while on other occasions they operate ahead of the change curve, and reset the stage in an attempt to be proactive.

To extrapolate this theoretical notion to the broader communal system will allow us to examine the outcomes we experience within the American Jewish marketplace. This state of disruption contributes to a fundamental operational realignment. Within the Jewish ecosystem, we encounter the re-engineering of legacy institutions, the emergence of new organizations and startup programs, and the intervention of social media platforms and alternative delivery systems, all designed to be reactive to change in the dimensions of Jewish life.

The causes associated with this rapid, disruptive change environment are essential to understand within the context of the Jewish communal sector:

  • In this third decade of the 21st century, generational and demographic behaviors drive the scope and pace of change. The national discussion and debate around diversity and inclusion, which encompass sexual orientation, racism, cancel culture and more, is profoundly reshaping Jewish life, institutional practice and communal policy.
  • The economic order is in the midst of a significant recalibration. The impact of inflation, shifts in the character of work, transformative financial resources, new entrepreneurial business models, the rise of social media and e-commerce and other forces reshape institutional performance and practice.
  • American Jewish assimilation is being reframed. Social mores and cultural norms have altered how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. Contemporary anti-Semitism and the disruptive state of American politics must be seen as transformative factors.
  • The decline of trust in established institutions and the loss of confidence in key leaders—evident in the civic culture—represent a phenomenon also present within the religious sector, as symbolized by the rise of the “Religious Nones,” which further minimizes the impact and credibility of our communal and religious infrastructures.
  • The idea of community and the value of the collective have been replaced by attention to individualism. The primacy of the sovereign self remains a core challenge.
  • The impact of technology has transformed communal behavior in a rapid and radical manner as we monitor the rise of virtual Judaism.

Each of these trend lines reshapes the 21st century American Jewish community. Introduced below are a number of particular characteristics that serve to describe the “state” of the Jewish communal order:

Personalized, Privatized Judaism: This age is marked by the blossoming of personalized expressions that define the character and content of how Judaism is being reconstructed. The primacy of the individual now drives Jewish economic and lifestyle choices, but also contributes to a distinctive set of religious expressions and cultural choices, as Jewish pride and curiosity drive this inquiry. The focus on individualism correlates with the broader cultural emphasis on the primacy of self. Jewish seekers are turning to websites and learning platforms to study Jewish texts, experiment with spirituality and frame new forms of Jewish cultural expression. Diversity and choice redefine the Jewish marketplace with much of this new energy delivered virtually.

The Rise of Entrepreneurial Judaism: A major economic shift is now underway, as we monitor the rise and growth of various forms of for-profit Jewish initiatives. We see new economic models taking hold. The historic disconnect between the for-profit sector and the Jewish institutional marketplace is eroding, as we note the rise of entrepreneurial Jewish business models. The creation of programs, services and products delivered through a business format will reshape how we understand and define the communal enterprise. Even as some parts of this sector opt for a for-profit incentive model, much of the nonprofit market space is impacted by platform branding, social media advertising and the introduction of e-commerce offerings. The delivery of American Judaism to consumers is fundamentally changing!

Virtual Judaism: One of the primary outcomes of this new emergent communal model has been the growth in the impact of online Jewish cultural and religious offerings. This revolution encompasses all aspects of study and prayer, just as it reshapes patterns of engagement and connection. The phenomenon of the virtual national synagogue with its global membership represents a post-COVID reality.

The New Voices: One finds more and more influencers who are seizing this moment and operate through independent leadership pods across the Jewish ecosystem.

As the community transitions, the idea of a holistic, integrated communal model has given way to this new constellation of distributed power. The traditional organizing principles are being challenged and, in some cases, discarded. Among these are the concept of membership, the idea of affiliation and loyalty to denomination and agency. Emergent boutique models are being introduced that are framed around alternative organizational principles and delivery models.

The continuous internal institutional wars over policy and personalities add to the division and discord that define the communal order today. The external political environment represents another factor in the unraveling of the idea and value of a single integrated Jewish community. In its place, we see the framing of multiple Jewish communal responses around such core ideas as Israel, managing the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel expression and giving space to the emergence of different and competing political and cultural perspectives.

Impact Studies: We will not be able to fully appreciate the structural, social and cultural effects of the pandemic on our community for years. External influences have and will continue to drive communal behaviors. Elsewhere, this writer and others have addressed the broader social and structural impact of COVID on the communal landscape. We need only reference the 2008 economic crisis to appreciate such external markers.

One critical outcome involves the mental health and physical wellness of our constituencies. No longer dismissed as individual considerations, these issues occupy the attention and responsiveness of a consortium of religious and social service organizations. In this new moment, the welfare of the individual has become a definitive and essential priority.

Emergent Conservative Voices: In the midst of liberal Jewish expressions of activism, one finds a series of countervailing forces, which include the rise of a vibrant, triumphal American Jewish Orthodoxy, the growth of a vigorous Jewish conservative cultural and literary presence and an expanded conservative political focus, which challenges the community’s traditional liberal anchor.

Shared Threats: Even as communal interests are increasingly minimized, there remains a shared concern in connection to institutional and personal security. The presence of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism has been one of the few unifying factors in driving a collective response. We might consider how such external threats transform identity and engagement.

Geography Matters: Beyond the great workplace resignation, we are in the midst of a great population transfer. We see a significant population shift under way, with pockets of middle-class families and singles opting out of our large traditional population centers. This phenomenon is also present in Jewish households. This exodus will likely produce new Jewish urban centers of influence, among them communities in the south, southwest and northwest.

The Bottom Line: At the same moment, vibrant innovation has blossomed, even as we document parts of the community order in the midst of difficult transitions. We experience the graying of America’s legacy Jewish institutions, just as we observe the presence of a new creative robustness as personalized, individuated Jewish initiatives emerge to fill the marketspace, led by a mix of generational actors and innovative organizational models. This new presence is comprised of a broad set of single-issue institutional expressions, with particular attention directed to specific sectors of our community. Among these operational voices are activists who give specific attention to broader social issues of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and generational preferences.

The continuous rise of new Jewish institutional models reminds us of the creative energies present within our community, and the ability to serve niche markets remains a powerful option. Since the mid-1980s, Jews have been reinventing the communal marketspace, and constructed along the way an institutional and cultural revolution. Experimentation is a primary marker necessary to understand the current Jewish marketspace. What we have identified is a series of energy pockets, the spaces where transformation unfolds in full. The state of the community is marked by these shades of unevenness, pockets of innovation offset by institutional paralysis and dysfunction.

In this condition of chaos and change, as we transition from generation to generation, encounter shifts in institutional models and absorb the waves of cultural and social influences, the Jewish communal enterprise is in the midst of a major reset. The outcomes here remain uncertain, just as we identify in some sectors a renaissance of engagement and activism. The revolution is upon us. We face a set of unknown and complex challenges that will fundamentally redefine our institutions and recalibrate our community as we move forward.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies and Interim Director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, Jack H. Skirball Campus, HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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