The Jewish Enterprise

A Communal Journey: reflections on a half-century

In Short

Looking Back and Thinking Forward: What are the Take-Aways?

As I complete fifty years of service and study of the Jewish communal scene, it’s an appropriate time for reflection and assessment. Indeed, while the hundreds of articles that I have crafted for eJewishPhilanthropy and other national and local publications offer specific insights into the Jewish communal enterprise, what are some of its sustaining trends and takeaways?

Having worked for a national agency (AJC), served as both a federation (Albany) and agency executive (JCRC) director, and experienced a Jewish start-up (JACY-NY[1]), along with my academic pursuits (HUC), here then are some observations and recommendations in connection with my Jewish professional journey.

While no great revelation, the Jewish community continues to change. The collective sense of will and purpose that defined the consensus years (1967-1981) allowed the community to act with intention, focusing on the Diaspora-Israel relationship, the case for Soviet Jewry, and the business of building community.  No doubt, as so well documented, the Six Day War sparked a significant and sustained period of Jewish re-engagement and produced an extraordinary collective response.

The era of complexity (1982-1994) saw the communal enterprise remain “connected” but the task of consensus building and mutual action would be more difficult to achieve. The Peace for Galilee Campaign (1982) would mark the beginning of this transition as this war introduced the first major public dissent in connection with Israeli policy, signaling the beginning of a different political dynamic between Diaspora and Homeland.

The thirty year period of innovation, experimentation and transformation (1985-2015) would represent a fundamental reset of the American Jewish experience. Borne out of the generational transfer of wealth and the unleashing of a new entrepreneurial spirit within the nonprofit sector, we would experience, what I have termed, the “second American Jewish revolution.”

The age of Trump (2016-2020) would produce a unique and defining shift in political culture that generated a significant degree of internal Jewish division.  The Jewish community would be adversely impacted by the rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior. Should we be more concerned by the rise of the extreme political right or the anti-Israel response from the left represented was but one of the factors in connection with the Trump presidential legacy. My forthcoming edited collection, focusing on the impact of the Trump presidency on America’s Jews and Israel, promises to raise additional considerations about this critical time frame.[2]

Posted in the footnotes, I note the ten primary transformative moments covering this fifty year time frame.[3] The cumulative effect of these particular events redefined America, reshaped Israel, and in turn, had a profound impact on the American Jewish community. 

Rethinking the past:

Over these years I have generated a significant body of writings; I have selected six publications (noted below) that, I believe, best define my communal and political perspectives.[4]

There are many “take-aways” drawn from this tenure of service. Posted below are a few of these reflections:

Extraordinary leaders: Watching both lay persons and professionals perform in their respective roles provides some critical insights as to how individuals shape outcomes and influence communal culture. The art of mentorship ought not be lost as one can see how quality supervision on the part of a professional can make a profound difference, just as the influence of lay mentors can change the leadership paradigm. Supervision is an art form and if executed well, can inspire and motivate quality performance, escalate trust among the players, and produce effective, self-aware young professionals. 

Professionals impact and shape outcomes, but their biggest contributions are most likely in inspiring, educating and engaging their lay partners. The “dance” that defines the lay-professional connection can be extraordinary as it can be toxic. There are natural tensions built into such relationships but the capacity to minimize those points of conflict can enable this association to flourish! Trust represents a defining and essential value proposition. My mentor and colleague, Gerald Bubis so creatively addressed this issue in his 1999 publication, The Director Had a Heart Attack and the President Resigned.

Ego as a defining element: Observing how leaders embraced their roles and responsibilities may be among the most amazing scenarios.  For some, both lay and professional, their tenure would totally be defined by their personality and their presence. This cult of personality model may be satisfying to the individual player but can be destructive in building institutional culture and coherence.

By contrast, when seeing the servant-leader perform it is difficult to distinguish their presence from the work product, as their role and contributions have melded into the fiber of the task. These great leaders are more about outcomes, service, and culture than personal aggrandizement.

Prisoners of history: We are all somehow caught up in being defenders of the existing order. In periods of rapid and radical change, are we able however to move beyond our protective base? Are we in a position to ask: how do we interpret what is happening, why it has particular implications for us, and in what ways we can most effectively respond to these new conditions. We often confront these challenges moving from a position of comfort to a management space  that is at best uncertain, facing a set of unknown outcomes. Indeed, it is easy to become paralyzed, failing at times to see the trend lines before us!

Managing our resources:  We have the collective responsibility to maximize and protect the resources of our community, its leaders and members (the people), its great institutions (the places), and its wealth holdings (prosperity). There is a level of sacred obligation here in the management of these treasures so that each can be maximized to sustain and contribute to the Jewish story, moving forward.  

Creativity and ingenuity: The American Jewish story has been one of adaptability, accommodation, and accountability. At different moments in time, where the demand required us to adjust, the Jewish enterprise has been responsive to both external threats and internal challenges.

1880-1920: We framed a two-prong structural response in meeting the needs of the arriving millions of East European Jews. The creation of our federated system provided the means to manage core social service requirements, while our denominational networks introduced pathways for our community to connect to the synagogue world.

1985-2015: As noted above, entrepreneurship and individualism helped to foster an alternative communal order, built around single-issue, individualized expressions of the American Jewish experience. This boutique model emerged as a creative counterpoint to the established legacy order.  Today these systems are increasingly intersecting with one another, each drawing upon the performance and operational patterns of the other.

We are a people whose ideas and values, rituals and traditions have shaped our behaviors and influenced our culture.  The communal enterprise itself ought to be seen as a contributing innovative element of the Jewish enterprise. But the essential ingredients are represented by the substance and content of our people’s story. Peoplehood has been a uniquely important and binding value. Whether such a concept however is able to continue in today’s politically-charged, disruptive climate remains most certainly in question.[5]

Aggrieved: We are living in a particularly sensitive and raw moment, as groups across our society are seeking a redress of grievances. Whether in connection with race, gender, or ethnicity, there is a historical reckoning underway. Yet, at the same moment, we are seeing a cultural backlash in an effort to flatten the political arena. As a counterresponse, we can identify elements in our society seeking to reclaim their voice and historic space, as expressed by their overt racism, sexism and antisemitism. How do we manage to address change, even as some wish to cancel culture and reconstruct history? Even within our own community, the issues abound, involving the status of women and Jews of color, along with marginalized individuals and unrepresented groups. The democratization of our communal enterprise remains a priority.

Self-destruction and winning: In this bifurcated political condition in which we find ourselves, there is always the tendency to tear down and destroy the existing order. I worry that in such a state of anger and distrust we may find it easier to break the communal order as a way to achieve a partisan victory. The greatest threat here is that once we disrupt the communal model built around consensus, civility and mutual respect, we will cease to function as a community!

Managing the future:

In this new moment, we are on the verge of encountering a new set of challenges.  I have had occasion to describe many of these emerging transformative conditions elsewhere:[6]

  • Demographic transitions: The forthcoming Pew Study on American Jews will reveal a host of new realities and social trends in connection with our communal future.
  • Generational realities: The profound shifts in generational behaviors are already impacting communal practice and participation.
  • Cultural motifs: Changing cultural patterns are reintroducing such themes as spirituality, connectivity, and communalism.
  • Political uncertainties: The divisive and dysfunctional political environment is spawning a significant infusion of anger, even hate, into the American polity, creating a significant challenge for America’s Jews, as their “whiteness” has become the new litmus test in connection with how they are perceived within this society.
  • Post-pandemic economics: In planning for the fallout and impact of this COVID moment, we will be facing certain significant and transformative financial and structural disruptions and threats.[7]

Yet, in the same moment, there is this rich vein of Jewish creativity and ingenuity that runs through the pages of our history. May it continue to be a source of renewal as our collective story continues. The road forward will be measured by how well we will have embraced our past, in alignment with our capacity to envision and manage the future.

This fifty year sojourn has been extraordinary! This is about the achievements rendered, the diverse experiences encountered, and the challenges faced, some won-others lost. In the end, it is all encapsulated by the many individuals I have had the privilege to learn from and the opportunity to work with; they have transformed and blessed my life, enriching this journey in the process.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com

[1]Jewish Association for College Youth, created by the UJA-Federation of New York in the early 1970’s, operated for a number of years as a grant making and social service organization before being folded into Hillel.

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Impact-Presidency-Donald-American-Israel/dp/161249708X

[3] Posted below are the key dates covering this fifty year period:

  • December 6, 1987: Freedom Sunday, Soviet Jewry Rally in Washington DC
  • March 24 and 25th 1991: Operation Solomon, 13,000 Ethiopian Jews Fly to Israel
  • September 13, 1993: Oslo Accords Signed by Prime Minister Rabin and PLO Chair, Yasir Arafat
  • September 11, 2001: The 9/11 Attack on the United States
  • September 5, 2005: Gaza Withdrawal by the State of Israel
  • August 11 and 12, 2017: Unite the Right Rally, Charlottesville
  • December 6, 2017: US Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital by the United States
  • October 27, 2018: A Lone Gunman Attacks Worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh
  • August 3, 2020: Abraham Accord Sign by UAE, Israel and the United States
  • January 6, 2021: Capitol Insurrection

[4] Introduced here are six key publications:

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-end-of-the-jewish-century-1918-2018-why-this-period-has-been-unique-in-the-annals-of-jewish-history/

[6] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-few-before-pew-some-insights-and-trends-concerning-the-jews/

[7] https://scriptions.huc.edu/scriptions/tag/Pandemic+Generation