Unsettling times

Assessing Jewish institutional behavior and practice in the age of COVID

In Short

The “viability factor” will determine which of our organizations will survive

In my most recent post found on this site, I laid out a few of the transformative operational and leadership changes underway as a result of this pandemic moment.[1] What will all of these changes mean for our Jewish communal institutions?

As we know, communal change will continue to take place. The bottom-line question, are we likely to see these transitions happen in an orderly, planned fashion or will disruptions take place in the absence of a systematic plan for institutional transformation? Indeed, outside forces, i.e., pandemics, economic dislocations, generational behaviors impact the Jewish marketplace.

There are distinctive behavior patterns associated with organizations. Here are a few of these performance standards:

  • Institutions have limited life expectancy.
  • Not all organizations are the same.
  • Transparency and accessibility as essential values.
  • Some institutions thrive where others are faltering, reminding us that the marketplace remains uneven, even unpredictable!
  • When describing institutional practice, agility and flexibility maybe the defining and essential behavioral markers, especially when managing in a state of complexity and uncertainty.
  • Leadership is the life blood of institutions and communities.
  • Branding remains a central and critical ingredient.

In 2018 I laid out a comparative framework of Jewish institutional practice.[2] Earlier publications also helped to frame other elements specifically associated with Jewish communal practice.[3] The materials posted here represent a restatement of previous ideas, as well as the introduction of new data in connection with this pandemic moment and beyond.

Long Term Perspectives:

  1. Jews are constantly seeking to assimilate and model the behaviors of the broader society. 
  1. Jews are consistently reinventing American Jewish life and culture, reflective of different generational influences, social and economic factors, and internal Jewish cultural forces.
  1. Contemporary antisemitism may change the character and direction of communal assimilation patterns, as Jews seek to protect and defend themselves. 
  1. As America has experienced several periods of religious revivalism, are we likely to see such a similar expression during this century, and what might that mean for American Judaism?

Pew and Beyond:

As the Pew Studies confirm, American Jewry is no longer a singular entity. We are in fact multiple communities, divided by religious beliefs and practices, political interests and values, social concerns, and generational behaviors.

Introduced below are ten operational indicators, with each contributing to this current pattern of communal transition:[4]

  • The decline in institutional and synagogue memberships
  • The growth in the number of institutions experiencing closures, mergers and downsizing.
  • Denominationalism is no longer a viable model for our community. Umbrella structures are being challenged, and in some cases coming undone.
  • Reduction in the number of donors and in some cases a significant fall-off in financial support.
  • Fewer millennial and Generation Z participants in religious and communal activities.
  • Increased competitiveness as the numbers of institutions crowd the Jewish marketplace with the rise of boutique organizational challengers.
  • Weakening of the support for and engagement with Israel
  • Higher intermarriage numbers and increased patterns of assimilation
  • Deepening policy divisions within the Jewish community are creating a widening of tensions and disagreements.
  • Professional and lay leadership succession patterns appear to be upending and altering communal culture and religious institutional practice.

New Challenges: In this pandemic setting we see specific institutional behavior patterns that will have implications well beyond COVID:

  • The Rise of Communalism: This pandemic is shifting Jewish individualistic behaviors and preferences to a heightened awareness of Jewish communalism, as we document the adoption of collaborative cultural models. Among the features associated with this focus on institutional collaboration has been the emergence of community-wide programming, the presence of joint congregational initiatives to produce and distribute virtual Jewish offerings, and the growing partnerships between foundation donors and institutional players in responding to the social issues and financial challenges facing parts of our community. These patterns and practices of connectivity will be essential features as we move beyond this moment.
  • The Structural Revolution: As we assess the impact of this health crisis and the resulting economic displacement on Jewish life, this situation reminds us that 21st century American Jewry is living with a 19th century communal legacy system that operates as if we were a part of the 20th century. During this disruptive period in time, we are likely to see efforts to introduce new organizational initiatives designed to establish a 21st century communal and religious model. We will be shifting from a crisis-based and assimilationist-oriented framework of institutional practice, essential in meeting 19th and 20th century priorities, to a pro-active, social media-oriented Jewish marketplace where renewed attention will be given to the changing tastes, needs and aspirations of Jews.[5]
  • Redefining Judaism[6]: In this moment of isolation and separation, “relational Judaism” with its attention on personal connections and commitment to individual relationships represents a powerful and essential motif in sustaining community and promoting connectivity. This will be one of the sustaining features of the new American Jewish model.
  • The New Jewish Economic Order: A striking new communal reality during this crisis has been the imprint of Jewish family and community foundations in intervening with stop-gap funding measures, establishing a collective effort to support communal and religious needs, and assisting federations in managing both the short and long term social and financial demands. We are currently experiencing the single largest infusion of funding into Jewish life in our history, generated by government-initiated grants, major Jewish foundations, and individual Jewish donor families. The creation of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCROF) will generate nearly a hundred million dollars in assistance with “interest-free loans and grants to maintain the infrastructure of Jewish life across the United States.”[7]

Focusing their energies and resources in a number of target areas, Jewish funders, under the leadership of the Jewish Funders Network, are directing their giving in response to five specific areas of need encompassing Jewish poverty, the Emergency Fund for the Procurement of Supplies for Jewish Institutions, CANVAS: a new arts and culture collaborative initiative, Jewish Innovation and Entrepreneurship Project, and the Israel Civil Society Relief Fund.

  • The Great Jewish Learning Moment: In this Zoom culture, is it possible that more Jews than at any other moment in history are being exposed to Jewish platforms of culture, religious practice and education?  With the possibilities provided by this virtual learning moment, more Jews, it would appear, are participating in religious worship experiences. Correspondingly, based on recent Gallup and Pew findings, the novel coronavirus has sparked a renewed interest in religious revivalism and communal participation.[8] How deep and sustaining this “return to religion” and “renewal in community” remain open to further assessment. This current focus on spirituality and religious practice will likely have some longer-term residual impact on enhancing and promoting Jewish study and worship moving forward. 

This moment raises however a larger question about whether a Jewish spiritual renewal is likely to emerge in the midst of this chaos. In such disruptive experience will we see voices that will seek to redefine the Jewish message? 

  • New Jewish Delivery Systems: “Virtual Judaism” will emerge as a central feature to the post-pandemic environment. Zoom participation will likely be a prevalent expression of communal and religious practice in the aftermath of this virus. Technology and social media will be core structural elements in defining the 21st century Jewish model of practice.
  • Competitive Pressures: In the aftermath of this moment, with the rise of virtual Judaism, will it be possible for our community to sustain the multiplicity of free offerings, including worship services, study programs, lectures, and classes?  The “survival of the fittest,” namely those institutions who are specifically funded for online learning and have established an expertise in such type of programming, are likely to continue and to remain successful. We may well see the “nationalization” of certain synagogue and educational institutions, whose online success during the pandemic may elevate them into becoming large mega-delivery systems of worship services and educational and cultural programming. We may see for the first time in our history the rise of national synagogues, similar to the mega-churches in their power and ability to serve large media-based audiences.
  • Pandemic Generation[9]: The COVID-19 experience, along with the 2008 recession, is not only impacting institutional trends and personal behaviors but will fundamentally influence how an entire generation of millennials and Gen Z will define their life choices, values, and behaviors. Similar to the Great Depression’s impact on the economic and social practices of an earlier cohort of Americans, we likely to see comparable behavior patterns as expressed and played out by younger generations.


Twelve years ago during the economic recession of 2008, we observed that the Jewish communal and religious sector underwent a significant economic and structural tsunami; today, we are able to monitor the further downsizing of institutions, while anticipating the closure and merger of others.[10] Major sectors of the Jewish communal economy are also being directly impacted in connection with the downsizing of national organizations and agencies, along with the reduction of personnel associated with schools, camps, synagogues and community centers. 

The “viability factor” will determine which of our organizations will survive and those that may not! It would appear that along with the rest of our society, elements of our communal structure are likely to leave the scene or face major reductions in size. Cultural institutions, as an example, may not be able to manage in an economy that will focus primary resources on core human needs. Institutions without alternative income streams, sufficient financial reserves, and a fiscal game plan for managing the future are also not likely to survive. A dominant theme within the Jewish marketplace, in the aftermath of this moment, will be identifying creative financial options as we move forward. 

Hate in the Age of the Coronavirus: As we live through the impact of the novel coronavirus on our society, we are simultaneously experiencing a new era of hate politics.[11] The rise of racial antagonisms, the marginalization of immigrants and the return of religious bigotry frame this current wave of prejudice. Such anti-social behaviors have been present at previous pandemic moments. in particular, Jews are experiencing attacks directed against our community and its members. Two forms of anti-Semitic expressions have been introduced, anti-Israel symbolism is being joined with traditional modalities of hate expression where Jews are seen as conspiring to both spread the virus and financially benefit from its presence. These anti-Semitic patterns are part of a larger assault on Jews as “white” folks. The political right is seeking to define Jews as “white” pretenders seeking to replace the existing WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) establishment, while the left is claiming that Jews have become “too white” (i.e., too establishment) thereby losing their standing and credibility as a minority community.[12]

The New Economic Realities: This moment will place increased attention on the concerns for those who are experiencing economic hardships. Specific attention is being directed to the welfare of working class and more directly, racial minorities. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the economic, political and health disparities within our society have been specifically high-lighted, resulting in expressions of protests.

Internally, there will be renewed attention on the emergence of a new generation of “Jewish poor.” This sector is likely to be comprised of a cohort of older Jews, young families and singles, adversely impacted by this economic dislocation. There is a growing concern for the welfare of specific business and professional sectors of this economy, including real estate, entertainment and travel, along with small business operatives who are reporting already significant losses in the aftermath of this weakened economy. Indeed, we might expect a significant number of Jewish households reporting economic hardships.

More than 1000 Jewish organizations and synagogues received in excess of $500 million in government loans as part of the stimulus packages introduced this spring by the federal government.[13] Yet, despite these financial initiatives, numerous Jewish groups have been forced to lay off personnel.[14]

Beyond these critical social and economic trend lines, I think that American Jews will be entering a particularly unsettling time frame, as evident by the issues introduced below:

  • Political Fallout: As we noted above, there is a new round of anti-Semitic expression in connection with efforts to link, Jews, Judaism and Israel with the novel coronavirus. In connection with this particular modality of hate, there has been an expediential expansion of conspiracy theories, where Jews are often targets of such messaging.
  • Racial Equality: Over the course of last summer, especially following the death of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, this nation has begun a difficult but essential conversation concerning racial injustice. As with other Americans, Jews hold diverse opinions in connection with the broader subject of racism, the cultural role of historical monuments, and support for Black Lives Matter and CRT (Critical Race Theory). 
  • Israel and BDS: As we have seen, especially since the most recent Gaza Conflict, there has been an acceleration of anti-Israel rhetoric. There has been a clear uptake in opposition to the Jewish state’s policies in connection with Judea and Samaria. Of particular concern is the college campus scene with the continued presence and growth of the BDS movement. Within the rejectionist camp, we will see the unfolding of public expressions of anti-Zionism and a growing number of physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions.

The Jewish community is simultaneously facing a three-pronged threat as it moves forward:

  • Fundamental operational and financial challenges driven by the pandemic and the economy, leading to a significant level of economic and policy adjustments.
  • As identified by the recent Pew Study, we are experiencing major demographic and social changes, driven by major generational shifts, changing identity patterns, and cultural behaviors.
  • Key external factors, emanating both within this country and across the globe, involving a significant increase in antisemitism and anti-Israel expression and action.

Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR.  His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

[1] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/organizational-change-how-the-pandemic-is-transforming-our-community/

[2] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/revisiting-the-third-american-jewish-revolution-reoccurring-themes-new-perspectives/

[3] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/principles-of-communal-practice/

[4] Ibid

[5] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/courageous-leadership-now-an-urgent-agenda-for-the-jewish-community-and-its-institutions/

[6] https://www.amazon.com/Relational-Judaism-Relationships-Transform-Community/dp/1459669371

[7] https://www.jewishtogether.org/responseimpactfund

[8] https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/307619/religion-covid-virus.aspx

[9] https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-generational-effects-millennials-gen-z-baby-boomers-2020-4

[10] https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/2-major-brooklyn-reform-synagogues-in-merger-talks-as-covid-19-pandemic-cuts-into-revenue

[11] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hate-in-the-coronavirus-age/

[12] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/whiteness-as-the-new-measure-of-anti-semitism/

[13] https://www.jta.org/2020/07/08/united-states/1000-jewish-groups-received-at-least-500-million-in-government-loans-some-laid-staff-off-anyway?utm_source=JTA_Maropost&utm_campaign=JTA_DB&utm_medium=email&mpweb=1161-21044-94039

[14] https://www.jta.org/2020/05/19/united-states/hundreds-of-layoffs-with-more-to-come-were-tracking-coronavirus-job-losses-in-the-jewish-world