At the Crossroads: Reinventing the Jewish Public Policy Sector

shutterstock_188558921By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

A number of avenues of Jewish life are undergoing a process of reinvention; over the past several years, these have included Jewish education, camping, outreach initiatives, global social activism, and synagogue worship. Why not the discipline of Jewish community relations? Why not explore a partnership with the major streams of American Jewish philanthropy to re-engineer and grow the community relations enterprise? In hindsight, the community relations system must be seen as one of the extraordinary success stories within the American Jewish experience.

The core components of this field remain essential to the welfare and viability of the community. Yet, in a changing environment and culture, how best can the community relations “field” address its future, while continuing to meet the challenges that are facing the Jewish people and American society?

This is hardly the first time that this discipline has sought to recalibrate its messages and its mechanics. From the outset, the core instrumentalities of the CR enterprise examined not only external threats and internal challenges but also analyzed its tools of advocacy and engagement. With its array of organizational partners and structural resources, the field tested different models of accessing the public square and delivering its messages. Fighting anti-Semitism, promoting civil rights, advancing the social welfare agenda, managing the case for Israel, and advocating for Soviet Jewry would represent substantive examples that demanded collaborative intervention and shared leadership. In turn, new components of communal action would be introduced along the way.

One of the core mandates related to the evolution and development of the American Jewish community was the following proposition:

“To protect the welfare and safety of Jews residing in the United States and elsewhere; and to advance those causes that contributes to the general enrichment and well-being of American society.”

The term “community relations” would initially be introduced in 1943. Certainly, at the outset the principle responsibility associated with this discipline would be centered on Jewish security or “defense.” In the 1950’s the then NCRAC (National Community Relations Advisory Council) noted:

“The best way to guard against anti-Semitism is to work for the principles of freedom and equality on which America rests. This means fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, for equal opportunities for everyone, for the free institutions and free processes that make up our democracy. Only as a true equalitarian society is approached will anti-Semitism in all of its forms diminish.”

Writing about the evolution of the community relations “field” in the 1960’s, Arnold Aronson noted that this discipline had moved through six stages: welfare, defense, education, intergroup cooperation, social action and community relations.

Since its inception as an integral part of the mandate and agenda of the “organized” Jewish community, this network of national institutions and local JCRC’s (Jewish Community Relations Councils/Committees) would operate in a number of critical areas in order to advance the interests of American Jewry:

  1. Building the pro-Israel agenda
  2. Supporting efforts to contain international terrorism and to advance homeland security
  3. Advocating for Jewish and human rights across the globe
  4. Advancing civil rights initiatives and social justice imperatives
  5. Promoting intergroup and interfaith relationships
  6. Articulating public policy concerns covering a broad spectrum of social and economic concerns

This model of community advocacy was designed to build points of access with key business, political, and religious elites and civic institutions in the society, who in turn shape and promote policies and attitudes that are seen as coherent with Jewish interests and American democratic principles.

A cost-benefit analysis would suggest that Jews, along with American society as a whole, have been the beneficiaries of this highly successful advocacy system. In measuring attitudes this field has contributed toward the enrichment of America’s understanding of Judaism, Jews and Israel. Further, the community relations enterprise has been responsible for promoting key legislation, advancing coalitions for social change, and articulating shared civic values. This engagement with a broad political agenda prompted community leaders to seek out partners who shared common priorities and mutual interests. Among the areas of collective action included a shared commitment to Israel, church-state concerns, economic and social justice matters, and educational initiatives, all of which were seen as contributing to the general welfare of the society. In the end both Jewish self-interests and the public welfare have been enhanced by the organizations that comprise this system.

Jewish Political Action:

Over the course of the American Jewish experience, the community would move through four stages of political engagement:

  1. Petitioner: 1654-1870: During this two hundred year cycle, Jews would enjoy limited political access, as immigrants seeking parity and equal access.
  2. Personalities: 1870-1930’s: During this sixty year period, prominent American Jews would be able to create access and to exercise influence.
  3. Participant: 1930’s-1960’s: During the subsequent next three decades, collective engagement would be achieved by involving the broadening of Jewish participation in the American political process.
  4. Partner: 1960’s and beyond: During this past fifty year cycle, Jews would be seen as “power players” operating within the mainstream of American life and politics. Jews have often been described as the architects of social engagement, as they have ascertained a level of credibility and access that has permitted them to be effectively embedded within the American political process.

Over the decades Jews would grow their political activism. In the 20th century the Jewish community relations enterprise would seek to harness this passion and commitment by engaging individual Jews in a political conversation that employed a specific set of tools:

  • Employing diplomatic interventions and political pressure
  • Promoting both local and national programs of education and action
  • Developing public marketing campaigns
  • Providing governments, media and other institutions with key background information, and
  • Offering programs and resources designed to carry out national and communal priorities.

In many ways this field has served to advance what we might describe as the “Jewish Contract with America.” This alignment of Jewish values and aspirations with American social norms and political principles has framed this contractual arrangement. Such civic principles as the “rights and dignity of the individual”; “civic responsibility”; and “just and humane society” would find their parallel values within Jewish tradition and practice.

The Next Set of Communal Challenges:

Yet, in this current context one finds a Jewish community awakening to a broad set of uncertain and new threats:

  • The rise of global anti-Semitism and the politics of anti-Israelism
  • Troubling developments in the Washington-Jerusalem relationship
  • A growing political divide among American Jews over Israel and other core interests
  • A crisis in American governance and leadership

Undergirding all of these issues, one finds a new level of angst among Jews reflecting their concerns about this changing political landscape. Contributing to these new challenges, does American Jewry have today a shared and coherent message to deliver?

Beyond these emerging new fears and concerns, a number of core elements basic to American culture and more directly impacting Jewish society contribute to a changing picture of the future:

A new American and Jewish Demographic:  as a result of Pew and other studies, how ought we to engage the next generation in embracing Jewish political activism?

Finding a new Generation of American Jewish Leaders: The question of preparing a new generation to lead is not only a Jewish issue but reflects a national concern. Preparing individuals not only to understand the elements of leadership practice but to engage the next cohort of leaders to become grounded in the idea of “leading toward what?”  What do we want leaders to say and to do, while helping them with the tools and resources of leadership on behalf of Jewish political engagement?

Alternative Means for Presenting and Engaging our Target Audiences: How might we use the tools of social networking to build a core following and enhance our messages?

The Changing Messages We Will Need to Deliver: How do we reconstitute a cohesive, integrated “Jewish community relations agenda” or is such a notion of unity no longer possible, and if this is the case, how will American Jews operate in this new political climate?

The “Jewish” Component: How does our tradition define and shape our new messages, structures and vision?

Reinventing our Community Relations Instruments: What types of organizations, strategies, and tools will we require in reconstituting the “field” of community relations?

A Return to Coalitions and Community Partnerships: Politics has always been about building coalitions; who are our new (and old) partners in advancing our international and domestic agenda? How do we retool?

A Changing Global Environment: In light of international violence and terror, how can we promote the case for Jewish security, American/international engagement to counter Islamic fundamentalism, and support the strategic concerns of the State of Israel, while pursuing our commitment to advance human rights?

The Changing Role of the United States in the World: How can we help to define and shape a new American foreign policy, and what role ought Jews and others to play in advancing US interests in the world?

Framing an Agenda for Building a Collective Jewish Civic Agenda:

The tasks ahead encompass five operational principles:

  1. Organizing Folks: This process must be seen as being driven both from the bottom up and from the top down. In some measure, we begin where this discipline started, namely retooling ourselves and others in the art of community relations, skill building around advocacy and engagement, and the task of defining our self-interests and our shared interests.
  2. Managing the Complex and Changing Agenda of Jewish Public Affairs, reading the passions and priorities of Jews.
  3. Importing the Uses of Technology and Communications to articulate our messages and to engage a new generation of Jews through the lens of social networks.
  4. Learning to Integrate our Diffuse Work Products as a way to create a seamless thread of ideas and actions that can drive a coherent agenda. Currently, we are the inheritors of a highly developed (infra-structure), yet deeply divided and diffused public affairs agenda.
  5. Rebuilding and Building Coalitions, as we remind ourselves that all politics is local, and if we are to remain or become credible nationally, even internationally, we need the local infrastructure of policy partners and community advocates. Power is formed around the credibility of our issues, the strength of our partnerships, and the alignment of our interests.

The bottom-line for this field will be measured around how well as a community the instruments of community relations succeed in fulfilling our core political interests. Realizing that political power is fluid, that policy interests shift, and that political goals do not remain static, how best ought the community reposition itself to manage the challenges of the 21st century? This re-engineering initiative is at one moment both about “delivery” (how best to market messages?) and “substance” (what ought those messages to include?).

What are some of the political tools that will need to be introduced?

  1. Forecasting/Political Mapping: Measuring the political climate, emerging issues, and the changing characteristics of the political marketplace. The Jewish community’s ability to anticipate policy trends and emerging social patterns will be essential to its continued relevancy and success.
  2. Media Messaging: Perfecting what messages are delivered and how best to present these themes to target audiences.
  3. Leadership Modeling: Developing new methodologies for preparing and engaging leaders, identifying changing elites, and monitoring leadership styles and tactics that resonate within the public square.
  4. Think Tank/Resource Center: Establishing a national policy center committed to monitoring key policy issues and trends, while also being devoted to exploring different political models of organizing.
  5. Economic Incentive Packages: Advancing seed monies to underwrite alternative models of community organizing, leadership development programs, and political advocacy campaigns.

Culture of Experimentation:

In light of the significant demographic, social and cultural changes underway within the community, institutions have redirected their resources seeking to capture “the new and innovative” as a way to maintain members, attract donors, and build their market share. This focus on experimentation represents a significant cultural shift. Where organizational priorities have been centered on three core elements: survival and sustainability (institutional maintenance), generational exposure (marketing to a specific constituency and social style), and social appeal (mimicking trends), now these institutions must question core policy assumptions, transform their organizational cultures, and introduce new organizing principles. Indeed, with change comes a revolution in both structure and function.

The New Jewish Civic Culture:

As this writer has noted elsewhere, a new “civic culture” is emerging where specific shifts in social practice are dictating structural and policy changes within the communal enterprise. Among these operational transitions one finds:

A Shift from Centralized Governance to Localized Management: One of the core features of the new civic Jewish culture is the decline of a centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance, as the federated and religious systems have ceded power to newly-created boutique institutions and to community-based organizations. The consensus-based agenda that had promoted both domestic and foreign priorities within Jewish life has eroded; in its stead one finds a fundamental repositioning of social concerns. The resulting product of many of these structural and policy changes has been the evolution of a highly decentralized community model. Where once communal power and authority were concentrated in particular institutions, today such power is dispersed.

End of Ideology: If the last century was distinctively identified by a period of ideological engagement and marked by distinctive political and religious camps, then the current environment would suggest that such attachments to core beliefs is being set aside and in its place an age of pragmatic choice would seem to be dominant. Jews are now seen everywhere along the spectrum of social movements, giving up traditional labels and loyalties in favor of making independent and personal choices.

Closures, Mergers and Consolidations: Just as there has been significant expansion, there is a corollary response as witnessed by the closure of certain legacy organizations. As one of the primary outcomes of this cultural shift, we are experiencing a major recalibration of our institutional system as reflected by downsizing, mergers and in some instances the closing of organizations and synagogues. Similarly, within the communal network, national organizations, as exemplified by JESNA (Jewish Educational Services of North America) and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, cease operations, while other organizations move to reposition themselves against the onslaught of membership losses and financial challenges. We are witnessing a corollary change with umbrella systems and national religious structures that are redistributing functions and responsibilities, shifting certain core tasks to their local constituencies or disbanding specific services. These changing structural realities lend support to a call for the reinvention of the Jewish community relations field.

An Assessment:

In order for the Jewish community to build on its credibility and to grow its political clout, its community relations infrastructure must be a position to articulate its essential messages, to engage key stakeholders, to identify and grow its relationships with key partners (coalitions) and to align its interests with the values and priorities of the general society. This, then, is the time to explore with the key instrumentalities of Jewish philanthropy a collaborative initiative to frame the future of this work product. This is fine-tuned, highly integrative arrangement that involves relationship-building and policy-development, essential both to the Jewish story and to the general welfare of America.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. See, www.thewindreport for Dr. Windmueller’s collection of writings. This article is based on the recent work Steven Windmueller has been doing with JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs).