November 16, 2018

U.S. Jewry faces challenge as national movements decline

We are in the midst of one of the most significant downturns of traditional membership-based organizations in this country’s history.  Unions, service clubs, membership organizations and umbrella institutions are all reporting a decline in members and affiliates. Of particular importance is the marked decline in ideologically based social and religious movements.

According to social scientists, these trends date back to the 1970s as Americans began nearly half a century ago to pull back from their civic connections. Pamela Paxton of the University of Texas has suggested that democracy is based on having citizens connected with one another in promoting a shared identity and a mutual sense of responsibility. Any decline in civic participation is seen by Paxton as problematic to our democracy as it undermines the social capital of a society.

More recently, a combination of factors seems to have accelerated this pattern of disaffiliation. The economic crisis and the loss of trust in institutions are seen as two key elements. Loyalty to particular institutions has given way to a new consumer mentality where the value of acquiring the “best deal” has replaced the ideal of sustaining one’s organizational commitments.

Life-long loyalty to traditional institutional relationships has given way to a growing investment in single-issue initiatives and to specific social causes. In today’s marketplace, there are multiple and competing options with regard to affiliation and participation. In turn, the millennials represent a generation that is more readily prepared to jettison their parents’ institutional choices in favor of alternative ways to engage in the public square. Social networks for this generation are replacing traditional membership patterns.

For the Jewish community, these declining numbers are particularly problematic, as we are witnessing a transformational change across the nation in the composition and structure of our institutions. The closing of synagogues, the merger of schools, the downsizing of national organizations and the retrenchment of personnel reflect the contemporary communal landscape.  In the end, fewer Jews are supporting more of these core institutions.

Religious movements from all faith traditions are confronting an array of institutional pressures including the loss of members, policy conflicts over doctrine and practice, and leadership challenges. The Indiana University Center on Philanthropy reported that “increased competition from a proliferating number of non-religious organizations, a decrease in church attendance, and a general lack of sophistication within religious institutions regarding fundraising” represent specific factors that might be contributing to this decline within the religious sector. Experts on religious movements have suggested that a number of these bodies were constructed around “slow-moving bureaucracies that need to find a way to stay nimble in the 21st century.”

This declining confidence in institutions is not unique to religion. Americans are less confident in the leaders of many kinds of structures than they were in the 1970s. Still, confidence in religious leaders has declined faster than with representatives of other institutions. People now express as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, with public figures from other major institutions.

As a result of these social pressures and changing demographic trends, we can document a series of specific trends within the Jewish institutional world. Organizations report a return to localism, where institutions with global and national ties are opting instead to focus their resources in community-based efforts. Local affiliates appear often unwilling to sustain their levels of commitment to their parent or national governing units. Correspondingly, national systems faced with declining resources have been forced to downsize their service delivery options and curtail national programs.

As local institutions and their membership base are experiencing a rapid change in the types of services and resources required to manage their operations, community-based groups are frequently bypassing their national partners in favor of securing assistance from other types of management and organizational service centers. In this new paradigm, Jewish organizations will need to demonstrate a level of risk-taking in delivering their messages and in packaging their services if they wish to capture unaffiliated and disconnected Jews as well as reconnect with their former membership base.

Religious movements and national institutions inside the Jewish world will need to address these challenges by investing in an array of new strategies that will focus their energies on leadership development, infrastructural reorganization, social networks, and alternative policy and program initiatives that are designed to recapture the attention of the “street,” i.e. the general public. Movements of all types need to reframe their core messages as a way to affirm their legitimacy and brand their identity. Creating centers of learning and action will be core to a movement’s sustainability and growth. In the past, highly successful institutions had the luxury of ignoring their competitors, yet in more recent times, most great organizations have learned to build alliances, create partnerships and systematically enter into arrangements where allied or competitive groups were integrated or merged into their system. 

If movements and national institutions are to regain their legitimacy and standing within American Jewish life, they will need to assert a more transparent policy process, frame messages that respond to the values and behaviors of the millennial generation and serve the needs of the baby-boomer community, as well as reflect a structural nimbleness necessary to compete in the 21st century marketplace.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on