Asking the Right Questions: The Changing Landscape of Jewish Participation and Engagement

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

A new social order is evolving within the American Jewish eco-system. The older framework of a fixed set of cultural norms and social queues is being challenged by a new regime of communal practice. Elsewhere, I have written about “legacy” and “boutique” organizations, describing many of the characteristics of these distinctive types of institutions. But unlike that “divide,” this conversation centers today on asking the following question: How effectively are organizations engaging with their supporters, members and clients? Indeed, certain legacy and boutique groups score very high when employing these new measures of personal impact, while others from both categories are seen as deficient in connection with this emerging model.

Currently, as these two systems compete on the American Jewish stage, each is serving different constituencies, contributing contrary messages, and providing alternative methods for understanding and interpreting the notion of “belonging.”

The defining measure: “how successful is an organization in being responsive to its base?” We are reminded by Ron Wolfsan’s work on Relational Judaism that impact can be defined through interpersonal connections. Being “networked” may best be defined in contemporary parlance by the character and depth of donor engagement, member empowerment, or client connection. Similarly, the work of Allison Fine brings these ideas forward in a masterful way.

These ideas are also reflected today in business literature (i.e. where the corporate sector seeks to expand its connections with its customers. “Relationship Marketing” reflects a whole systematic focus on personalizing customer outreach, and here are some of the study’s findings:

Longstanding customers are much more likely to purchase ancillary products through upselling and cross selling. You reduce the cost of acquisition. Happy customers introduce you to new prospects, reducing the need to paid advertising and costly marketing campaigns. There were also some less-obvious benefits noted in the study, such as the fact that companies with strong loyalty measurements are more capable of shutting out new competitors and generally don’t have to worry about competing products as much.

Loyalty programs and the introduction of customer surveys, for example, are seen by the business sector as corollary benefits to relationship marketing.

Returning to the world of Jewish “customer” relations, the material below provides a comparison of these two contending social systems, currently operating within the community.

Context Old Communal Order New Social Realties
Technology-Social Media Membership Recruitment/Retention Membership as Engagement and Connection
Religion in America Focus on Ritual and Tradition The Culture of Experimentation and Encounter
Culture Managed Generations A Culture of Growing Personalized Connections
Generations The Continuity of Generations The Generational Revolution
Marketplace The Traditional Jewish Economy: The Federated Order Entrepreneurialism and the Rise of the Jewish Funders
Communal Enterprise Community and Polity: Preservation of an Established Communal Order The End of Community: Jews in Search of Individual Meaning
The Social Order Social Rules, Civic Norms, Shared Understandings Multiple Entry Points and the Presence of Institutional Choices
Demography and Membership Belonging” as a Core Generational Expectation Bowling Alone”: Decline in Affiliation and The Changing Character and Composition of “Community” as Selective and Participatory

Traditionalists are focused on how to grow institutional programming, i.e. “see what we have to offer?” while the emergent leadership cohort is intent on asking the “relational questions,” namely so “how are you benefitting from our programs?” The old order remains fixed on “outcomes,” while the new regime directs its attention to the delivery of services and programs with “impact” as the instructive element. In the former framework, the attention has been directed to the health and welfare of the organization, “how are we doing?” In the later case the energy is placed on the recipient, member, donor or client, where the core questions are built around serving the needs and interests of these constituencies, i.e. “how can we better engage and serve you?

In the older order one “joined” in order to support causes of interest to them; in this newer model one “participates” as if they are part of the team, acting in relationship to others in creating a common purpose. Drawing on the I-Thou Buber construct, a different formatting of relationship is being introduced, changing in turn, the equation that an individual has with “his” or “her” organization, moving from a corporate framework to a personal connection.

As more organizations shift to this model of practice, there will be corresponding changes in how synagogues, schools, centers, philanthropic groups, among others interact with their “membership” base. In this approach there are other built in cultural features, the focus here is not on volume but rather on quality, or the depth of interaction. In this context, we want to grow a person’s access to the mission, purpose and content of what we are doing. These points of connection can occur on line or in person; this is a matter of intension, not merely a superficial acknowledgement of one’s membership, gift or presence at an event.

The art of relationship building is indeed time-intensive, but the payoffs for both the individual member and the organization can be dramatic and sustaining. Each action must be seen as part of an overall initiative to extend the donor or member involvement, as if one were in a dating situation, where you seek to build trust and connection. Just as all dating is not the same, each encounter with a new member or donor requires a personalized plan of engagement.

Audacious Hospitality” is how the Reform Movement is seeking to expand its reach to new families and individuals. “Cultivation of the Donor” has been a mantra for the Jewish Federation world. “Hadassah – the place where lifelong friendships are made” provides another example of this model. NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women) promotes the following message: “you will impact your community and the world at large by becoming part of a growing grassroots network of courageous and compassionate individuals who improve the lives of women, children, and families every day.”

Indeed, most Jewish organizations have “the message”; the question is do they have the cultural and personnel commitment in place to execute these connective pieces?

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: