From “#MeToo” to a New Generation of Jewish Leaders: Introducing The Change-Makers

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As these pages constantly remind us, the Jewish communal system is undergoing significant transformation. Driven by an array of “influencers” among them demography, economics, and social culture, the communal order is experiencing a fundamental recalibration. Yet, in many ways, the changes underway specifically remind us of the generational factors playing out within our society. Just as we are witnessing major shifts in the social mores and cultural behaviors of Millennials, the society is experiencing broad institutional realignment.

“Generations” represent a powerful motif in Judaism and in the life cycle of the Jewish people, as well. From our historical heroes to the contemporary frame, the power of personalities may be the most defining characteristic of our story of leadership transition. This is no less true today, as we see the movement of new generations of leaders into our elite institutions. Whether involving our religious infrastructures or our communal organizations, we are observing a transition of power from one generation to another. A new generation is assuming the ranks of managing the Jewish enterprise.

The Change-Makers:

The announcements over job appointments over the past several weeks are signaling a number of such transitions! The selection of William Daroff to replace Malcolm Hoenlein at the Conference of Presidents and the choice of JTA editor, Andrew Silow-Carroll to secede long time publisher and editor of The New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, represent two such examples. In recent months, we have noted other such generational leadership passages, including the NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women), as Nancy Kaufman relinquished her CEO role to Sheila Katz, who previously served as Hillel Vice President of Social Entrepreneurship. Changes taking place at the Forward signal both a generational shift and the changing cultural realities, namely, can Anglo-Jewish newspapers survive?

With CEO openings at Hillel International and the JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) still to be filled, are we likely to see further generational shifts in play? Similarly, with the recent opening at JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) what might we expect by way of a new appointment?

Beyond the leadership transition underway at JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America), involving Hillel executive, Eric Fingerhut, taking over the management of the Jewish federation system, one sees the dramatic generational rites of passage in such major federated communities as Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Houston!

Already in play are institutional change makers, as identified at the ADL with Jonathan Greenblatt and elsewhere across the Jewish marketplace, including the New York Federation with the appointment of Eric Goldstein. The new Jewish institutional leadership class involves a number of folks who have already been a part of the communal apparatus, while others have come to their positions from outside the Jewish world. The presence of more women in these senior leadership roles is impressive, but also points to their underrepresentation in these executive positions.

In an essay posted in The Times of Israel[1], the President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, Jay Ruderman, critiques the “establishment” which he defines as “checkbook Judaism” describing the communal apparatus as “a leadership class based on wealth, maintained by millionaires and billionaires, and hardly representative of today’s diverse American Jewish community.” He concludes: “It is the best interest of our American Jewish community for major Jewish organizations to embrace transparency, diversity, and the distinction between true leadership and money.”

When interviewed by Hadassah Magazine, one of the newer executives on the Jewish policy scene, Bend the Arc’s Stosh Cotler raised three of the basic questions that young American Jews need to be considering: “Why be Jewish in 21st-century America? Why should we at any age be participating in Jewish life? What does the Jewish community stand for?”[2]

In describing the changing character of Jewish leadership, Rabbi Elka Abrahamson of the Wexner Foundation offered the following, “We really embrace the notion that a leader is not a person, but leadership is an activity.”[3] Indeed, as institutions select their next generation of leaders, search committees should weigh the redefinition of leadership as laid out above and consider the questions framed by Stosh Cotler as part of their deliberations, while understanding the implications of the Ruderman critique.

#MeToo and Other Generational Characteristics:

But leadership transitions are not the only markers to define the generational conversation now underway. The battles over “tainted” philanthropic dollars and “unfit” Jewish leaders, as the “Me Too Movement” invades Jewish communal space have become prime issues! The “Dirty old men” debate symbolizes a distinctive marker referencing a specific cohort and generation of high profile Jewish leaders and high-end donors whose behavior is being called into question. The “source” of high profile philanthropic dollars appears to be increasingly a generational question, as younger Jews are introducing these types of issues into the conversation around ethical giving and institutional accountability and transparency.

With this conversation already underway, what might this mean for a community as it seeks to redefine the roles and behaviors of its donors? Are we likely to see the introduction of ethical standards in connection with the receipt of philanthropic dollars? Are we perhaps at the dawn of a “new age” of reckoning concerning big-name Jewish philanthropy?

With the closing down of the Israel Project within recent days[4], we are reminded that institutions are buffeted by generational preferences, donor priorities and cultural trends. The institutional transitions we have witnessed, and are likely to continue to monitor, reflect changing generational patterns of choice as well as the shifting interests of funders. Synagogue membership, donor giving characteristics, and organizational participation patterns, each mirror the significant demographic shifts underway within our culture.

A Snapshot of the New Jewish Generations:

The impact of the new Jewish generations, both as leaders and participants, will be significant in shaping the American Jewish marketplace. What do we know about Next Gen Jews? Here are but a few characteristics! This will be the most racially diverse generation in our history. While taking on many of the attributes of their contemporaries, Jewish Millennials are particularly “proud to be Jewish” as they exhibit “a strong sense of belonging” to the Jewish people. While some 32% describe themselves as some “having no religion,” yet identify on the “basis of culture, ethnicity and ancestry.” This generation holds that an ethical life (69%) is an essential ingredient to their Jewishness.

Lisa Eisen, President, U.S. Jewish Portfolio of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, has laid out a five-point program for generating system change, partially in response to the shifting interests and practices of this new generation and in connection with the changing character of the nonprofit sector. New leaders will be challenged to think about these structural principles:[5]

  • Creative Disruption” Disrupting models and forms of practice in order to create new outcomes and to attract new audiences.
  • Collective Impact” Securing funding partners to collectively address the need for change.
  • Pressing on a Lever of Change” Focusing on a particular “fulcrum” in order to produce a new caliber of leadership.
  • Field Building” Identifying a missing operational gap and filling it, and
  • Movement Building” Creating movements where people are “organized, goal-oriented, growth-oriented and the champions of new narratives.”

Reflections: Challenges Facing Jewish Leadership

Writing in 1990’s[6[ Dan Elazar, z”l, masterfully laid out the issues challenging the Jewish community as it would move forward. Reflecting on its core priorities and commenting on the state of the communal enterprise at that moment in time, not surprisingly, he highlighted “the demographic shifts, the emergence of new model organizations, and the emerging changes in communal leadership.”

We are in the midst of another generational transition of leadership, documenting as well the changing demographics taking place within American Jewish life. Next Gen Jews and their “change maker” leaders will be contending with communal trends along with an array of other socio-economic and cultural threats to the current social order. Operating in an environment of such fundamental and rapid changes, what might it mean to be a Jewish leader?

Some of these issues are introduced below:

  1. American Jews are experiencing major demographic changes. Jews by choice are contributing to the reshaping of American Judaism, just as Jews of color are redefining who Jews are in America! Will these changing realities raise additional halakhic issues?
  2. The rise of American Jewish Orthodoxy and the growing presence of “religious nones” currently reflect the two primary trends impacting Judaism in this country. What might these and other trends mean for the future of American Judaism?
  3. Millennial and Gen Z Jews are reshaping the cultural, social and political behaviors of Jews in America. Racial and gender diversity are changing the definition of being Jewish in America. As conversations on gender and race emerge within the public square, so must these issues be central to the Jewish marketplace. How are we accounting for inclusion?
  4. As part of the new American demographics, Islam will replace Judaism by 2050 as America’s third major religious community (“Protestant, Catholic, Jew”). What might this mean in terms of interreligious relationships and our community relations agenda?
  5. As we know, Jewish Americans are deeply divided politically, not only around this President but also over Israel’s political choices. Will such a political reality portend the loss of Jewish political influence? What might be the impact on the American-Israel relationship?
  6. Some political experts and sociologists are asking if American Jews can still be described as “a community” or as a result of our religious, cultural and political behaviors and practices, are we now multiple “communities”? If so, will we be able to mobilize in crisis settings? Who will be accountable for those most vulnerable in our communities? Who is sanctioned to speak for America’s Jews?
  7. “Whiteness” represents one of the new tools of contemporary anti-Semitism. Our enemies, both on the right and left, are questioning our credibility and political standing by employing this measure as a way to marginalize our role in this society; on the one hand, the alt-Right rejects our claims of “whiteness” as we are portrayed as being political “imposters” and on the left, our enemies argue that we are seen as “too white” or powerful, denying us any standing or credibility as a minority community. What do these trends mean for our community and its political credibility?
  8. Boutique (or “start-up”) Jewish organizing models represent a significant institutional reality replacing and challenging our legacy institutions and synagogues. Can the community sustain the multiplicity of organizations now operating in the Jewish marketplace? Will there be a reordering of the communal structure?
  9. Just as independent Jewish funders and family foundations continue to contribute to a major reshaping of American Jewish philanthropy, new issues of accountability and transparency are being raised. Will we see the development of ethical guidelines in connection with charitable giving? Are we likely to see new definitions or standards defining ‘who maybe a Jewish leader’?
  10. As with other Americans, Jews, especially Baby Boomers and their grandkids, are on the move, in search of lifestyle changes and economic opportunities and social benefits. What will be the implications of these population shifts on our institutions? Are we likely in this changing economy to see the privatization of Jewish religious and communal practice?

Steven Windmueller is Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website:



3. Ibid