fbpx

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.
[additional-authors]
May 18, 2022
coldsnowstorm/Getty Images

We are living through an extraordinary moment of Jewish communal realignment; everything is in play. These shifting waters are significant and profound, impacting all sectors of our community. External elements, involving generational behaviors, cultural motifs, and technological innovations, are being simultaneously unleashed. The impulses here are global, yet most of the outcomes we experience are being locally driven. This survey article seeks to incorporate earlier work reflective of these core issues, while referencing new data and identifying emerging trends.

Contemporary change theory seeks to explain such transformational patterns. What we are learning 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, resetting the stage in an attempt to be proactive.

Extrapolating this theoretical notion to the broader communal system allows us to examine the outcomes we are experiencing within the American Jewish marketplace. This state of disruption is contributing to a fundamental operational realignment. Within the Jewish ecosystem, we are simultaneously encountering 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 the changing 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:

The national discussion and debate around diversity and inclusion, encompassing sexual orientation, racism, cancel culture and more is profoundly reshaping Jewish life, institutional practice and communal policy.

• In this third decade of the 21st century, generational and demographic behaviors are driving the scope and pace of change. The national discussion and debate around diversity and inclusion, encompassing sexual orientation, racism, cancel culture, and more is profoundly reshaping Jewish life, institutional practice and communal policy.

• The economic order is undergoing a significant recalibration. The impact of inflation, the shifting character of work, transformative financial resources, new entrepreneurial business models, the rise of social media and e-commerce, among other forces, are contributing to the reshaping institutional performance and practice.

American Jewish assimilation is being reframed. Social mores and cultural norms are altering how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. 

• American Jewish assimilation is being reframed. Social mores and cultural norms are altering how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. Contemporary antisemitism 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, represents a phenomenon also present within the religious sector, as symbolized by the rise of the “Religious Nones,” further minimizing the impact and credibility of our communal and religious infrastructures.

• The idea of community and the value of the collective have been replaced by an overarching attention to individualism. The primacy of the sovereign self remains a core challenge.

• The impact of technology is rapidly and radically transforming communal behavior as we monitor the rise of virtual Judaism.

Each of these trend lines is contributing to the reshaping of 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:

Increasingly, Jewish seekers are turning to websites and learning platforms studying Jewish texts, experimenting with spirituality, and framing new forms of Jewish cultural expression.

Personalized, Privatized Judaism: This age is distinctively marked by the blossoming of personalized expressions that define the character and content of how Judaism is being reconstructed. The primacy of the individual is now driving Jewish economic and lifestyle choices, but it is also contributing to a distinctive set of religious expressions and cultural choices, as Jewish pride and curiosity are driving this inquiry. This focus on individualism correlates with the broader cultural emphasis on the primacy of self. Increasingly, Jewish seekers are turning to websites and learning platforms studying Jewish texts, experimenting with spirituality, and framing new forms of Jewish cultural expression. Diversity and choice are redefining the Jewish marketplace with much of this new energy being 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 are seeing new economic models taking hold. The historic disconnect between the for-profit sector and the Jewish institutional marketplace is beginning to erode, as we note the rise of entrepreneurial Jewish business models. The creation of programs, services and products delivered through a business format will fundamentally 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 existing nonprofit market space is being 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 growing impact of on-line Jewish cultural and religious offerings. This revolution encompasses all aspects of learning and praying, just as it is reshaping patterns of engagement and connection. The phenomenon of the virtual national synagogue with its global membership  represents a post-COVID reality.

The New Voices: Increasingly one finds multiple influencers who are seizing this moment, operating 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 instances, discarded; among these are the concept of membership, the idea of affiliation, and loyalty to denomination and agency. Emergent boutique models are being introduced framed around alternative organizing principles and delivery models.

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

We will not be able to fully appreciate for years the structural, social and cultural effects of the pandemic on our community. External influences have and will continue to profoundly drive communal behaviors. 

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

Emergent Conservative Voices: In the midst of these predominantly liberal Jewish expressions of activism, one finds a series of countervailing forces, including the rise of a vibrant, triumphal American Jewish Orthodoxy, the burgeoning of a vigorous Jewish conservative cultural and literary presence, and a growing conservative political focus, challenging the community’s traditional liberal anchor.

Shared Threats: Even as communal interests are increasingly minimized, there remains a shared concern in connection with institutional and personal security. The presence of antisemitism 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 among 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 one moment we are experiencing the blossoming of vibrant innovation, while documenting parts of the communal order moving through difficult transitions. We are experiencing 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 market space, led by a mix of generational actors and innovative organizing models. This new presence is comprised of broad set of single-issue institutional expressions, with particular attention directed to specific sectors of our community, among these operational voices are activists giving specific attention to the 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 growing focus to serve niche markets remains a powerful option. Since the mid-1980s, Jews have been reinventing the communal marketspace, constructing along the way an institutional and cultural revolution. Experimentation is a primary marker in understanding the contemporary Jewish marketplace. What we are identifying is a series of energy pockets, the spaces where transformation is fully unfolding. The state of the community is marked by these shades of unevenness, pockets of innovation offset by institutional paralysis and dysfunctionality.

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

In this condition of chaos and change, as we transition by generation, as we encounter shifting institutional models and absorb the waves of cultural and social influences, the Jewish communal enterprise is experiencing 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 are facing 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.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

A Walk to Tel Aviv

May we have the awareness to notice and give thanks for the blessings already here. May we have the resilience to trust that better days will come again.

The Real Danger of AI

If you can’t tell the difference between authentic, profound human expression and machine-produced writing, then the fault lies not in the machine but in us.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.