A Conversation with Jewish Professionals: Insights on the Jewish Future

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

At the second cohort gathering of CEO Onboarding-Leading Edge, I had occasion to address this extraordinary group of some 15 newly appointed Jewish professionals. Coming to the Jewish community from an array of diverse backgrounds, they shared concerns that sparked not only a thoughtful dialogue but reminded me that these individuals, better than most, will be confronting on a daily basis the demographic, policy and social realities that are redefining Jewish life in the second decade of this century. As the boundaries and borders that may have at one time more conveniently identified and separated “Jews,” in today’s social environment, these definitions no longer appear to be appropriate, as we embrace a culture where each person must make their own choices about what it may mean to be Jewish.

I suggested to these emerging leaders that they consider four core “global” concepts that will impact their roles as communal leaders: the changing nature of “work” in America and how the economic transitions of the marketplace affect life-style choices and civic involvement of those we may be serving; the impact of social media and the world of technology on communications and decision-making; and the benchmark of institutional participation and social connections which has dramatically weakened over the past fifty years, exploring why we need to re-engage our constituencies, not only for the welfare of the Jewish world but also in connection with re-energizing the civic and political culture of America; and finally an analysis of the historic design and evolution of the American Jewish community with its changing composition, culture and character. Finally, I noted a leadership crisis within our society that also presents challenges for American Jewish organizations. How we identify, prepare and engage people at all levels for various responsibilities will define the very future of the American Jewish experience.

In turn, they raised with me a series of challenging ideas and questions:

Generations: These professionals are inheriting institutions where there is a major transition occurring among the generations that today comprise our community’s consumers and decision-makers. For some of these new professionals, the engaging concern centers on how to bridge conversations between these different constituencies. Helping their senior leadership, for example, to step back and listen to the priorities and passions of Millennials and the Z Generation, with the intension of redirecting the resources situated in mainstream or legacy institutions into possibly different and exciting directions, while rendering support to new initiatives on the Jewish landscape.

Demography: These new executives will also be dealing with certain key demographic characteristics, among them the maturation of the community, operating now as a fifth generation American story. But if many are part of this mainstream Jewish experience, others of us must be seen as only first or second generation Jews, who have arrived here more recently from such places as Russia, Israel, and Iran. Yet, the biggest demographic story of the first half of this century will be the emergence of the American orthodox community, whose numbers and clout will expand as other sectors of the communal system retract. How will the next cohort of Jewish leaders embrace these different audiences, bringing them into the communal orbit?

The Obligation to Speak Out: How and when ought a Jewish professional to speak on policy or pubic affairs issues? In raising this question, it stroke me that if we were to assume that the Jewish professional of the 21st century would be prepared to operate in a cone of silence, that would be a misreading of his/her orientation. There is a connective passion that defines and emboldens this generation of leaders who are committed to this work because they identify with the aspirations and values of the institutions that they now lead. The delicate balance of personal belief and communal practice may raise some challenging moments ahead, but there are nonetheless roadmaps permitting them to move forward, even giving voice to their vision and values.

Language: Terms such as “donor,” “member,” and “affiliation” may no longer fit the cultural framework of the new Jewish marketplace, as these professionals noted the importance of updating terms and reshaping messages that would resonate with these new generational constituencies. The invention of an alternative language may be a byproduct of these broader transitions we see emerging. At times we forget the power of words and how our newer audiences will bring their own set of communal terminology.

Institutional Silos: As part of our discussion, we revisited a cultural artifact, the existing pattern of promoting institutional “silos,” as much of the Jewish organizational world has employed this model of practice. Younger professionals see themselves building operational bridges of collaborative engagement linking organizations together? If we are to embrace the broader social issues that impact the quality of Jewish living, then a rethinking of organizational relationships would need to be a part of such an encounter.

Barriers and Dollars: Of particular interest to me were two additional policy notions. The first centered on what ought to be the community’s expectations in welcoming the new participant. Do we “lower” barriers for engagement and admission or raise such standards, as a means test for elevating the Jewish experience as a privilege and opportunity where in fact we demand more of the participant, not less? The second involved the growing economic gap which one finds within our society but can likewise be documented within the Jewish world. What does such financial discrepancy mean in terms of who is invited to sit on boards or to be recognized? How then do we create pathways for others who may bring extraordinary knowledge and leadership talents but are maybe locked out by the financial barriers established by our organizations? What does this economic divide say about our society and even our community?

Other Themes: Over the course of our conversations, indeed many other themes would be introduced. Important among these, the rise of the “religious nones,” the “high cost of Jewish living,” and the operational tensions between focusing on the “particular” values and interests of Jews in contrast to the “universal” orientation of Millennials who want to align their Jewish practice with the civic concerns of the greater society. In spending some time on the evolution and historic construction of the communal model, we were able to specifically target “1985” as the essential transition point in altering the American Jewish story. The challenge of moving communal institutions that were appropriately designed for the 20th century to respond to Jewish “crisis” at home and abroad to a different operational model, one that focuses the energies of the community on creative and positive Jewish connectivity and learning represents an essential feature in reconstructing communal practice.

If leadership today is in part defined around how well an individual can effectively “manage loss,” then how do these emerging professionals compensate for and operate through these changing dimensions of Jewish life? These new leaders, in my mind, will be extraordinarily well prepared to creatively operate in these choppy seas of Jewish institutional life moving their constituencies to new horizons.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.