Getting into the Mind of a Jewish Structuralist: Insights into 21st Century Jewish Communal Practice

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Over the past several years on this site and elsewhere, I have argued that a fundamental restructuring of the American Jewish communal enterprise is underway. Changing demographic, cultural, and political forces have been redefining American society, just as these factors are transforming the Jewish community.[1] As a result, much of my research and writing has been devoted to unpacking the Jewish condition, defining its attributes and predicting its future characteristics. Many of my earlier pieces analyzed different segments and characteristics of the 21st Century Jewish storyline.

I believe that structures (religious institutions, communal systems of governance, policy-making bodies, and program organizations) tell us a great deal about how people interpret culture, understand social behaviors, and determine the best mechanisms for managing decision-making. The Jewish communal model is a great case study in better understanding how Jews have elected to implement their religious and social values and express their heritage in an American context.

I invite you to view this article as summation of my ideas and insights about Jewish institutional models of practice. Indeed, some of these assessments have appeared in my earlier works, but here I have attempted to package together many of these themes. I invite you to push back against the ideas, offering not only an alternative scenario but also arguments challenging the assumptions and principles of practice, as described here!

By way of historical context, the structural and functional roles associated with the American Jewish communal model were tied to three core elements: the economic principles of Capitalism, the social values of 19th century Progressivism, and the historic patterns of Jewish communal practice. This system of philanthropy and governance represented a unique combination of Jewish tradition and American business and social norms.

The representation and governance functions within the American Jewish context reflected a “republican” form of layered leadership, with national, state (regional), and local distribution of power. There was a conscious use of “separation of powers” between lay and professionals, just as there were clear divisions between “church” and “state,” exemplified in this context by the separation of roles and funding streams between “synagogues” and “federations” which existed for much of the 20th Century as part of the history of synagogue-federation relations. Historically, the Jewish expression of community represents an ideal framework for studying the principle that “structure follows function.

The core features of this 20th Century model are instructive:

  • Institutions operated in a competitive market environment around a set of unwritten but clearly understood rules of engagement.
  • The presence of strong umbrella institutions controlled the distribution of resources and the management of communal priorities and practices.
  • Organizations with similar mandates were able to challenge one another for market share.
  • The presence of interlocking directorates (board members connected by friendship and family across institutional lines) maintained a type of balance of power and shared responsibility for the overall preservation of this system.
  • Institutions were defined by their distinctive ideological, religious and/or philanthropic position in this communal hierarchy.
  • Voluntarism was seen as an essential ingredient and core value.
  • The system re-enforced the notion of “collective responsibility” and the priority of “communalism” as values that were to be embraced, and
  • Israel and global Jewry were seen as integral alliance partners within this model.

For over one hundred years, this model served the Jewish community exceedingly well. On the communal side it was responsive to Jewish crisis; on a global scale it was proactive in meeting the needs of Jews facing discrimination, hunger and displacement; and it was successful in advocating for Jewish and civic interests. On the educational, cultural and religious scene, our JCC’s, schools, camps and synagogues provided a coherent, creative set of programs and services that met the needs of three generations of Jewish Americans. These are no small achievements, against the backdrop of the most defining century in Jewish history.[2]

During the mid-1980’s, this framework of communal discipline and order, with its defined and distinct spheres of power, began to unravel. A number of factors contributed to the weakening and undoing of this legacy system of governance and communal management. Three significant conditions are associated with these structural transitions: the transfer of wealth to new generations who were no longer committed to or bound by the mores of the traditional model; the acceleration of political and religious disagreements in connection with the Israel-Diaspora partnership served to undercut these shared connections; and the emergence of boutique organizations offering alternative participatory options would challenge the hegemony of the legacy system.

Indeed, generational studies remind us that different constituencies envision their life journeys in distinctively different ways. They hold to a set of value propositions often at odds with earlier generations about how one goes about managing personal behaviors and social priorities.

The broader question involving the Jewish future, will communal change continue to occur and in what context will these changes unfold? 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?

Today, operating from a reactive frame of reference, five behavioral patterns define the Jewish institutional world:

1. A “silo” framework of competition, separation and discontinuity defines Jewish institutional practice.

2. Ideology and vision has given way more often than not to institutional survivability and to a culture of operational maintenance.

3. In many instances in this complex and uneven social environment, leaders, whether lay or professional, are unprepared for the 21st century demands for managing and leading sophisticated institutions.

4. While most Jewish institutions are functioning in a 20th century paradigm, most Jewish Americans are operating in a 21st century mindset.

5. In an environment where conflict and discord are dominant, institutional performance is compromised and weakened. Much of Jewish life has been impaired by these “Jewish Wars!”

Examining the Elements of Change:

Before examining the characteristics that impact change within the Jewish communal structure, it is important to identify some of the features driving this phenomenon.

When seeking to manage institutional dysfunction, business theory suggests that leaders tend to try and “fix” old organizational systems by adding or bandaging new structures onto existing ones, leading to a flawed outcome! As we monitor the history of institutional practice, it is evident that in many settings, we are imposing new functions on traditional structures.

As Professor Walter Russell Mead concludes: “The information revolution is disrupting the country’s social and economic order. The ideologies and policies that fit American society a generation ago are becoming steadily less applicable to the problems it faces today.” Dr. Mead goes on to state: “Intellectual and policy elites, for the most part, are too wedded to paradigms that no longer work. …The effects of rapid change are often unwelcome, but the process of transformation is one of growth and development…”[3]

Management theory today focuses special attention on “chaos” as the “constant” operational norm in today’s economy. Economists understand and recognize the imprint of innovation, globalization, technology and entrepreneurship as contributing to the current business environment.

Defining the Jewish Future:

In analyzing the characteristics of 21st Century institutional change, what are some of the unique Jewish features?

1. While the forces of change are generally global, the impact of change is distinctively local.

2. Change occurs over time, frequently in an uneven and a chaotic manner.

3. As we know, change is inevitable but preparing for and living with change must become a new Jewish mantra.

4. Institutions exhibit life-expectancy characteristics. Organizational life-cycle patterns involve their emergence, early growth, maturation process, and eventual demise. All institutions experience periods of upheaval and structural change as part of this evolutionary process.

5. The forces of change can impact institutions differently.

6. Change within the Jewish marketplace has several defining characteristics. Just as specific historic and cultural markers impact Jewish organizations, these same institutions are also responsive to the general social and economic pressures of the nonprofit sector. As a result, inside the Jewish institutional world, change is generated both by internal Jewish demands and by external societal pressures and norms.

7. Not all Jewish institutions will experience change in the same way! This suggests that some organizations will leave the communal scene, either by choice (merger or closure) or as a result of institutional atrophy (death brought on by incompetent leadership, poor decision-making choices, or a misreading of the Jewish tea leaves!), while others will continue to thrive or at least “exist!”

8. Leaders generate change, often however without forethought, where the consequences are either not fully understood or planned for. The outcomes are often seen as problematic and disruptive, sometimes leading to unintended outcomes.

9. Often primary institutional decision-makers are responsive to the forces of change but only after its impact has already altered organizational performance. As a result the decisions rendered can be reactive rather than proactive, creating further disruption to the eco-system of the organization.

10. Many of the “traditional” or core functions that were once the wholly owned province of the communal system ought to be seen in this current market as business-related functions that can be carried forward by for-profit institutions.

11. Change is the “new normal!” How leaders anticipate, plan and implement policies and programs in response to the forces of social change will define their legacy and determine the future of the American Jewish experience.

12. The American Jewish economy is today embedded into this nation’s general economic picture. No better example of this reality than the 2008-2010 general recession and its devastating fiscal impact on the Jewish communal system.[4]

In every institution, across the Jewish landscape, one can identify these disruptive elements. In studying these transformative factors, I introduced proposals designed to launch conversations involving the reinvention of the Jewish marketplace. My attention has been directed to three of the primary Jewish institutional systems: the federation world,[5] the community relations enterprise,[6] and the synagogue/religious denominational orbit.[7a and 7b]

I am arguing here that change is an on-going characteristic of this new age.

How Jewish institutions manage in this current state of chaos will become the new measure of organizational effectiveness. We can identify this state of disruptiveness that defines institutional behavior and influences communal practice. Eight indicators contribute to this current pattern of communal upheaval:

  • Decline in institutional and synagogue memberships[8]
  • 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[9]
  • Increased competitiveness as the numbers of institutions crowd the Jewish marketplace
  • Weakening of the support for and engagement with Israel
  • Higher intermarriage numbers and increased patterns of assimilation
  • Deepening policy divisions within the Jewish community, creating a widening of tensions and disagreements[10]
  • Professional and lay leadership succession patterns appear to be upending communal culture and religious institutional practice

In connection with these external forces, one can observe uneven transitions occurring within Jewish marketplace. These various economic, social and political[11] “disrupters” are contributing to the fundamental undoing of the established Jewish order. Today, within the Jewish market space, a good deal of energy is being expended on experimentation, with the introduction of new models of organizing and managing. Specific attention is being given to framing new cultural messaging and social media investments. Much of the focus is being directed to experimenting with alternative styles of leadership and business practices.

As a result, institutions are likely in this interim age to experience a series of operational “hick-ups” as they move from the current hybrid condition to the next level of a new communal idiom. In the process, we are likely to see a period of uneven institutional practice and performance.

The “unknowns” involve the redefinitions associated with such terms as “belonging,” “membership,” and “community,” Jews sitting in our pews and on our boards are recognizing and questioning these older structural practices.[12]

There also appears to be a significant amount of attention being placed on constructing new institutional partnerships and exploring corporate mergers. As a result, many of the institutions of the American Jewish enterprise, beyond undergoing profound structural change, may well disappear, merge or be re-envisioned to meet the needs of a very different set of Jewish constituencies.

Introducing theNew American Jew

Indeed, along with these structural changes and generational shifts, a very different American Jew is emerging.[13] The “sovereign self” has replaced the traditional focus on the “collective” Jewish response.[14] In this context “individualized choice” is minimizing institutional affiliation and altering organizational behavior and practice.[15]

I hold to the following four characteristics:

  • The new American Jew will cast a fundamentally different image: highly individualized, with distinctive loyalties and discrete sets of interests. “Individuality” will be the defining characteristic of this new species.
  • Community” will come to be understood as virtual, symbolic, and flexible.
  • “Jewish” will be seen as an adjective, conveying an array of old and new meanings. “To be Jewish” will hold multiple definitions in this new construct.
  • Institutions designed to serve this new American Jew will need to operate in such a way as to fulfill highly individualized tastes and time-specific needs. The age of the moveable feast is before us, as flexibility replaces stability and as integrative engagement offsets the silo marketplace of contemporary American Judaism.

Adopting the ideas of Andres Spokoiny’s 2018 Jewish Funders Network message[16]: “diversity, curiosity, collaboration, patience, and vision” will permit Jewish decision-makers and communal actors to “rewrite fate and change the world.”

In the end culture will define structure, as a new Jewish motif is being shaped.

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “The Big Shift,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 97, Issue 3, page 11.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writings can be found on