Defining Jewish Communal Greatness: How Ought we to Measure our Jewish Communities?

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Great Jewish communities require a set of social elements if they are to sustain and grow Jewish life. For communities to have true standing and historic impact, they will need to exhibit some of these particular features:

An Engaging History and a Sense of Pride: Communities require their own distinctive record; in part having such a defining urban identity lays a framework for a communal tradition essential for great cities and their legacy.

A Substantial Demographic Cohort: Jewish cities of import have historically possessed a significant population base. Without core numbers a community simply can not sustain and grow its institutions, promote its identity, or create a definitional statement of its contributions and import on the stage of history.

Economic Capacity: To achieve any of the core structural elements of greatness, a community requires a financial infrastructure as well as the capacity to sustain and grow its enterprise. Families of significant wealth would be a defining element within Jewish history in underwriting the religious and communal needs of a great Jewish city; in more contemporary times communal and private foundations are seen as core to the rise and expansion of great Jewish communities.

Diversity and Choice: Jewish communities of prominence are often comprised of diverse Jewish ethnic constituencies that add definition, character, and import to the development of these “empire” cities which tend to attract different cultural streams and social groups. The presence of significant ideological controversy and policy debates would represent specific markers of communal prowess and importance. Diversity in this context can be seen as an indicator of a community’s strength and maturity.

National (International) Connections and Geographical Access: Jewish communities throughout time who made an impact on historical events and garnered recognition were ones that demonstrated an array of connections with other communities. Great Jewish communities were seen as important “players” beyond their own borders. They demonstrated quality leadership, the excellence of their institutions, and the contributions of their citizenry. Most great communities were historically near major trade and sea routes permitting them the means to share ideas and exchange information. Today, “geographical access” may well be described in the context being seen as a media center.

Opportunity and Continuity: Communities of influence and standing provided the resources and access points for its members to fully embrace Jewish ideas and practices. Prominent public lectures, academic convocations, and the presence of high profile personalities contribute to the exposure of local institutions and their leaders.

Creative Spark: Communities have understood the importance of experimentation as a way to market themselves but also to inspire and enrich their citizenry. New forms of institutional expression reflect this form of creative expression.

Intellectual Commitment and Cultural Resources: Over the centuries the centers of Jewish life were constructed around the great intellectual and cultural resources that a community could offer. Aligned with a number of the other core infrastructural elements, great centers of learning and teaching embraced the creation of Jewish educational institutions and programs.

Leadership: Significant communities of influence have been known or identified by their leadership. Families of prominence and wealth have been significant factors in sustaining institutions, promoting Jewish learning, and advancing great Jewish ideas.

On the Edge and in the Center: Communities need to exhibit political and social power and intellectual achievement that define their core interests and values. Yet, great Jewish cities have also been witness to creative pockets of energy and resources operating on the edge, challenging the establishment while adding new social ideas and institutional models. Both elements are important to the health of the communal enterprise.

These ten measures help to define centers of Jewish creativity and greatness. Certainly, communities are not limited to these specific expressions to define their unique and important contributions. Modern Jewish urban centers have thrived combining many of these essential pieces, in contrast to older Jewish communities where the emergence of a single institution or the presence of a prominent Jewish personality or family could lend special credence to a community’s standing.

Yet, when assessing the vitality of a Jewish community, these standards of measure ought to serve as an important framework. What ought we to expect of the communal enterprise, and how should we evaluate the destiny and health of our urban Jewish centers?

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 in Los Angeles. You can find more on his writings and research on his website, The Wind Report.