November 20, 2019

‘How adaptable is the Jewish community in managing change?’

Dr. Steven F. Windmueller, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the ‎Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and author of “The Unfolding of the Third American Jewish Revolution”, discusses the past, present and future ‎responses of the American Jewish community to broader societal ‎changes. ‎

You project a “third American Jewish Revolution”, so let’s start by providing some ‎background: What were the first two revolutions of Jewish America?‎

The First American Jewish Revolution involved the creation of the major institutions ‎of the Jewish community; the majority of these organizations were established during ‎the period of great waves of Eastern European immigration, 1880-1920. Among the ‎institutions that were created during that time-frame involved our federation system, ‎our religious denominational movements, our national agencies (ADL, American ‎Jewish Committee, JWB, JDC, etc…), and our major educational and cultural bodies.  ‎

The Second American Jewish Revolution, 1983-2008, provided a counter-voice to the ‎first round of institutions. If the initial set of institutions were multi-layered, crisis-‎centered, and multi-generational in their composition, then the array of new ‎organizations that would emerge over this 25-year period, were centered on single-‎issue concerns, designed to serve specific constituencies, and focused on a ‎boutique form of Jewish expression and engagement.

Are such “revolutions” a sign of strength, or a sign that the Jewish community is not ‎well equipped to deal with shifting realities?‎

I think such “revolutions” neither reflect the strength or weakness of the community, ‎per se.  They reflect the demographic, economic, and cultural changes that one sees ‎within American society. How well our community adjusts to these transformative ‎moments that may better define or reflect the “strength” test.  How adaptable is the ‎community in managing change?

Where would the “third revolution” take us – is it essentially taking us back to where we ‎once were?‎

I think we will ultimately be significantly “meaner and weaker”; so how does that play ‎out?  American Jews simply cannot afford the rich array of institutional choices that ‎has been our good fortune to see on the Jewish landscape. Our demographic ‎numbers and financial resources would suggest that we will need to think in terms of ‎a more narrow system of institutional options.  Clearly, we will see some institutions ‎merge with others, while others will move to take on a different mandate, and sadly, ‎there will a set of organizations that will leave the playing field.  ‎

Rather than speak of a community “where we once were”, I would suggest we are ‎moving into a different type of communal network of institutions. The marketplace ‎may well dictate these outcomes, as consumers Jews will opt for particular types of ‎choices, and this is in part the exciting unknown!‎

You suggest a possible “weakening and possible demise of key national umbrella ‎institutions and religious denominational groupings” – but with no such institutions there is ‎no “Jewish community”, just local and weaker “Jewish communities”. Do you think this is a ‎likely scenario?‎

As noted in my paper and elsewhere, institutions fill gaps in service and consumer ‎demand. We are likely to see a realignment of institutional roles as some national ‎and local organizations move out of certain functions, others will move-in to supply ‎the essential unmet or desired communal needs. The market will dictate outcomes.‎

You say that “Driven by the market conditions, the community will have limited ‎resources to manage an array of economic challenges and choices”. This seems quite ‎obvious if market conditions do not change. But how would you advocate managing ‎these “limited resources” – do you have a list of “things we have to do” and “things we ‎can scrap” to share with us?‎

We desperately need a national consultation, designed to address these global and ‎financial challenges that impact our community.  In an article that will appear in ‎ (Tuesday, June 5th), I call for the establishment of a Jewish ‎Investment Bank and the creation of a R&D (Research and Development) Fund, ‎which might stimulate new thinking as well as seed new initiatives to reinvent the ‎Jewish communal marketplace.‎

One of the questions on which you do not give full answer is a question entitled “Jews take ‎care of their own”. You write: “Is this premise still viable? Will Jews respond through their ‎communal and religious networks?” Well, is it viable?

This premise is viable for some Jews, and yet not for others. My answer in fact reflects ‎the particular generation or “revolutionary” cohort from which someone may view this ‎question. Older Jews see this as the collective and central obligation of the Jewish ‎community. Younger Jews will more likely examine this question through the prism that ‎this ought to be the collective obligation of the society and its myriad of institutions, ‎regardless of faith. “Distinctiveness” seems less a characteristic shared today by all ‎Jews.  This in no way suggests that younger Jews are less committed to the care and ‎wellbeing of our citizens, but they reflect their connection here as a universal value, not ‎an exclusive Jewish one.‎