On the Jewish Road: What’s Going on in our Communities? Candid Conversations in Connection with the Jewish Future

What are Jewish leaders, both volunteers and professionals, asking these days?

By Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

As I travel this country, lecturing on the “state” of American Jewry and the Jewish political condition, I am often invited to meet privately with Jewish professionals, including our rabbis, educators, communal leaders and agency executives. In almost every instance, as a prelude to their questions, the conversation begins with “well you know, our community is different.” Indeed, communities exhibit certain distinctive characteristics, in part driven by their respective histories and the imprint of their leadership, but there remains an overarching degree of commonality that the bridges Jewish communal order.

What are Jewish leaders, both volunteers and professionals, asking these days? The questions that are being raised during our time together reflect a shared sense of concern for the future:

1. Is Anyone at Home? How do we reach and engage Millennials along with the many others who sit outside the communal orbit? Which communities and what institutions have found success after Birthright in maintaining connections? Invariably organizations are trying to get a handle on outreach, asking how best to access the next generations of Jews.

2. Have I Got a Deal for You? What’s new with dues models in maintaining our JCC’s, organizations and synagogues’ membership base? This question most certainly morphs into a broader discussion about community and institutional fundraising and the challenges that today face every organization.

3. Who is “in” and who’s “out”? Questions in connection with Jews holding divergent political views and how do we define and construct community in light of these divisions, represents an ongoing concern. Helping communal leaders bridge the political divide presents a major challenge. Do we invite in groups on the “edge” and what constitutes political positions that are seen as “outside the boundaries of communal consensus?” “Should J Street be seated at the table?” may be emblematic of this discourse. But certainly as important is the question of finding the common ground that will permit communal dialogue and action.

4. “What’s Up with the Jews?”: How can we best manage the external “threats” our communities are facing? Here, one is introduced to such concerns as the BDS Movement, the rise in anti-Semitism, and the issue of school textbooks and other materials flooding the educational marketplace that misrepresent Israel.

5. Let’s Do It Better Together: Who has successfully implemented mergers and what else is new within communities in connection with institutional sustainability? How do we move from our silo models of organizing to collaborative engagement? In this regard who appears to have successfully changed organizational culture? As communities are facing demographic and economic challenges, these questions appear to be more evident.

6. On the Battle Front: How can we overcome traditional communal wars, synagogue-federation, interagency battles, etc.? Depending on the communities, the battlefield appears to involve different contenders, but the Jewish Wars are sadly evident.

7. Facebook and Beyond: Every organization today realizes that the marketplace for selling brand and promoting programming requires them to have a social media strategy. Who in the Jewish world is successfully employing social media?

8. “So Nu!” For the first time leaders are now asking, “so what is the purpose of maintaining some of our traditional institutions?” In light of the changing patterns of philanthropic giving and the competitive nature of the Jewish marketplace, leaders are asking “what role ought federations to play in our community?” “Do we need Jewish social service and JCC institutions?” when these organizations are increasingly serving many more non-Jews than individuals and families from within our community.

9. “You Don’t have a Fever!” How do we effectively operate in an era of great stress and tension? Today, professionals, and even some lay leaders, are more open to sharing the burdens and challenges of “working” within the community. More folks are discussing their stories of burn out and the higher rates of professional turnover taking place within synagogues and communal organizations. The social tensions that one feels within the general society appear to have also penetrated the Jewish sector.

10. “You Don’t Need a Crystal Ball” If Jewish leaders are asking about the future of institutions and are struggling with the challenges of the work place, as expressed in some of the questions introduced above, the underlying issue for some of them is an abiding concern over the future of the Jewish enterprise, will there be a Jewish community in the decades ahead, and if so what might it look like?

These overarching concerns appear to be keeping Jewish professionals up at night and some lay leaders struggling to understand their role in what appears to be a changing communal dynamic. Elsewhere on these pages I along with others have written in greater depth about a number of these social and economic trends, offering various perspectives and recommendations in connection with state of the communal order. Indeed, that conversation will continue, just as the spirit of innovation and the power of change are transforming the Jewish enterprise.

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: www.thewindreport.com.