A Call for a National Jewish Conversation

by Steven Windmueller

A crisis of profound proportions is confronting the American Jewish community. Facing serious economic challenges, dealing with a rising concern over the viability and vitality of significant numbers of Jewish institutions, in part brought on by rapidly changing demographic and social patterns and a national crisis in leadership, and confronting worldwide concerns over anti-Semitism and anti-Israel policies and actions, there needs to be a national conversation on the American Jewish future.

Such convocations have been previously held by Jewish leaders and allowed for creative and necessary issues to be addressed by a broad, representative segment of national leaders, rabbinic authorities, and communal experts. Such a conversation held at this time would permit a serious analysis of the “state” of American Jewry and permit the opportunity for some serious exploration of how our religious and communal system must address the array of social, economic and political concerns confronting the community.

In the context of an emerging 21st model, Jewish life will be governed and framed around several core principles. First, old notions of institutional turf no longer apply, as no one owns “the” Jewish response to our communal future. As a result of the rapidly changing picture of who American Jews are and what they represent, there will need to emerge a different type of Jewish marketplace; such an environment must be seen as transparent and committed to experimentation and innovation. What will we “brand” as Jewish and how as a community do we compete in the marketplace of ideas and causes represent the types of challenges that will need to be addressed?

When Jewish communities in the past faced such overriding issues, national and even international conferences were convened. In 1943 American Jewish leadership met to form plans to rescue European Jewry and to seek formal recognition for a Jewish State in Palestine. On other occasions, such convocations addressed specific global and local priorities. In Medieval times, for example, “synods” were regularly convened by rabbinic leaders to consider Jewish legal practices as well as to respond to external degrees imposed by European rulers and Church authorities.

Such a national dialogue is long overdue, as it would come at a time when the Jewish enterprise seems unclear with regard to its mandate, especially in light of a community divided along political and ideological lines. Adding to these challenges, there is both a national crisis of Jewish leadership and a major generational and demographic transition underway that is fundamentally reconfiguring the very composition of our community. Joining these serious and significant domestic issues is an array of global concerns that include the growth of anti-Semitism, the spread of anti-Israel activism, and the emergence of a nuclear threat to Israel and the West from Iran.

In some measure one finds at this time communal and religious leadership bereft of ideas and strategies on how best to reach significant pockets of Jews who are unaffiliated or disconnected from the organized structures of Jewish life and in mobilizing initiatives to embrace younger Jews. A conversation among leaders is needed to re-imagine and help re-direct the institutional priorities for American Judaism. The financial and organizational infra-structure of Jewish life requires a thoughtful and candid reconsideration of institutional priorities and structures. At a time of diminishing fiscal resources and competing institutional threats and opportunities, communal and religious bodies must re-think the issues of governance, leadership, and financial sustainability.

While no institutional body has the authority to legislate social or structural change, a thoughtful and essential summit of Jewish leadership would seem to be both appropriate and necessary. Participation and engagement must be seen as a responsibility that transcends institutional boundaries, ideological and religious positions, and political passions. This represents an opportunity for also engaging the academic, rabbinic and educational leadership who are core to the Jewish future in order to help create a new national Jewish agenda.

Similar convocations should also be convened within our local communities, allowing leaders to re-imagine ways in which institutions might work in collaboration, while identifying unmet needs, shared concerns, and common action.

It is not uncommon to find religious communities and ethnic constituencies, stepping back from time to time, with the intent to critically and responsibly examine their core institutions, to assess their status and impact within the larger society, and to evaluate their shared priorities and common goals. This would seem to be the moment for American Jewry to undertake such a reassessment.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and holds the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service. This article is part of larger study undertaken by Dr. Windmueller on the economic situation and its implications for American Jewry.

The full version of the article, Dawn of a New Day in American Judaism, is available as a pdf.