In an Age of Change: Retooling the Jewish Community Relations Field

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Elsewhere on these pages, a discussion has been taking place around the state of the Jewish community relations field. In April of this year, I had occasion to offer one analysis and more recently, Doug Kahn and David Bernstein provided a paper sharing some of their insights about trends in connection with this discipline.

In this article I am seeking to identify key demographic and social factors over the coming decades that will be significant to the work of JCRC’s and our national agencies. In a very abbreviated form, I am introducing several of these trends:

Impact of theForeign Born”: In 1965 only 5% of all Americans were “foreign born”; today, 14% of the population is comprised of residents who were born elsewhere. Over the decades ahead, this trend is likely to continue.

The Latino Revolution: By the year 2050 Latino-Americans will account for 28% of this nation’s population, representing more than 100 million US citizens.

Emergence of Asian Americans: If Latinos are emerging as a major population force in this nation, over the next quarter century Asians will account for the fastest growing immigrant community.

Rise of Islam: Muslim Americans will represent the fastest growing religion in this nation, surpassing Judaism over the next three decades as the third major religious constituency in this country.

Decline of Mainstream Religion: Americans will be “less religious” as denominational numbers continue to drop.

The Shrinking Middle Class: In 2014 middle-income households represented 43% of all family units, down substantially from 62% in 1970. This downward spiral is expected to continue.

Millennials as a Political Force: Today, Millennials are the largest generational cohort in the history of the United States. It is a generation defined by its diversity where 43% are non-white, and unlike their parents, Millennials tend to be politically “independent” rejecting party loyalty as a defining feature of their political behavior.

Aging of America: America represents an aging society, but this factor is also true of China, Japan, Russia and Europe. By 2030, more than 20% of this nation’s population is projected to be 65 or older, compared with 13 percent in 2010 and 9.8 percent in 1970.

Defining America: Adding to these social challenges and demographic shifts are the deep crevasses that are shaping the political typology of this nation. Americans are struggling with one another to define the character and content of this democracy.

Implications for the Jewish Community:

These social realities will most certainly impact future policy questions for our JCRC’s. As new players enter the political marketplace and changing policy priorities drive the public agenda, Jewish organizations will need to take into account these changing forces. Intergroup relations programs, interfaith priorities and the public policy focus will all need to reflect these demographic realities. How Israel is marketed in this period of ethnic and generational transitions will represent yet another strategic challenge.

As the general society moves through these transformational steps, it is also apparent that American Jewry itself is undergoing fundamental internal changes. I have had occasion to write about some of these trends that will impact our capacity and commitment to effectively manage the community relations portfolio. These new Jewish characteristics are summarized below:

  1. We are no longer one community but rather can be described as multiple pods or communities. Where once there was a shared consensus about the Jewish story, today each individual is constructing his/her Jewish storyline. The collective mythology has given way to a highly personal rendering of the Jewish message. We are residing in a post-peoplehood condition.
  2. Choice and diversity are dominant themes when describing 21st century American Jewry. “Choice” is reflected in the broader cultural behaviors of this generation of Americans. How one defines or describes his/her Jewishness reflects the imprint of these various social forces.
  3. The current structural shifts that one finds taking place within Jewish life are driven by two primary factors: new generations of American Jews and the availability of new funding streams. Millennials are opting for alternative models of Jewish social expression, and new philanthropic investments are being directed toward supporting these initiatives. A new Jewish ecology of websites, organizations, and movements has emerged in response to the changing generational landscape.
  4. Historically, the State of Israel bound the Jewish community together; today conversations around the Jewish State create deep divisions.
  5. The social revolution that is underway has placed special focus on individual behaviors, rejecting the older modality of organizing with its emphasis on collective engagement, community, and continuity. In its place has emerged an array of single-issue causes and individualized expressions of Judaism.
  6. If identity formation in the past was constructed around a defined Jewish historical narrative, then today this story is framed through an integrative construct, where social issues and personal values intersect with one’s Jewish consciousness. Younger Jews are increasingly focusing their energies and ideas around enhancing and embellishing their passions. In this emerging model, the Jewish lens is but one of many competing forces that helps to shape the cultural, spiritual and political perspectives of younger Jewish participants.

Rebuilding for the Future:

Retooling will be an essential element for advocacy groups if they are to respond to these changing demographic, structural and social forces that are redefining this society and American Jewish communal life. Reshaping Jewish communal policy and practice in such critical areas as immigration, interreligious relations, economic, health and social welfare concerns will be essential if the JCRC world is to continue to be a relevant player within the public square.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: