The Jewish communal enterprise

Once upon a community: Where did it go and how do we reclaim it?

In Short

How do we understand the role and place of community in a changing American society? Why are we seeing a decline in community and civic engagement? What does all of this mean for Jewish life, as well?

Community has been understood as a sacred organizing concept in Jewish thought and practice. The centrality of community has served as a binding and essential value for the Jewish people. However, the unraveling of community is not merely a Jewish phenomenon but rather represents a generic civic trend among Western democracies.

Beyond analyzing the Jewish communal system, this writer has written extensively about civic engagement, as an essential glue in sustaining  democracy. With the decline of civil society, one worries about the health and welfare of our nation, as the presence of thoughtful, rigorous debate and active civic participation are critical elements for a thriving democratic society.

The value-added of community can be partially measured in “time” as we note that Americans contribute $193 billion of community service time in volunteering, representing a critical element of the social capital that we invest in our society.

How then do we understand the role and place of community in a changing American society? Why are we seeing a decline in community and civic engagement? What does all of this mean for Jewish life, as well?

There are many standards of measure when defining community. In the past civic engagement has correlated with a higher educated constituency.[1]

The proportion of high school and college graduates in the population has grown larger, but civic participation at every educational level has declined. People with high school diplomas but no college education have become about 32% less likely to join any associations, while there has been an increase in the proportion of people who belong to no organizations at all.

On the political side, we note that members of religious movements, neighborhood organizations and other forms of communal association are more likely to engage with politics and vote.  

Unraveling the Decline in Civic Engagement:

As Robert Putman and others have documented in the 1990’s, fraternal organizations and civic groups have suffered deep losses in membership since 1974.  As the General Social Survey (GSS) has confirmed from studies conducted over the closing decades of the 20th Century, since 1974 there has been a one-quarter drop in membership and a one-third loss in “social trust” since 1972. Similarly, according to Gallup, church attendance in this nation has fallen roughly 15% during the 1960’s, and by now amounts to 30%.

The causes for such declines appear to be aligned with time pressure, economic hard times, residential mobility, suburbanization and the stresses of two-career families. As political scientists have noted membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions and even bowling leagues have all declined. 

Trust as a Critical Factor:

Most studies find that associational membership is also linked to trust in other people. “Interpersonal trust and confidence in government tend to go together. Some research suggests that disenchantment with official institutions is an important cause of wariness toward other people.”[2]

Certainly, a lack of civic knowledge is a contributing factor as well. A third of our native-born high school students could not pass the  citizenship and naturalization exam. A huge share of American high schoolers are both unaware and unable to name the three branches of government.[3] We note that trust in government has fallen more precipitously than interpersonal trust. 

Sociologists conclude that voluntary activities are on balance healthier than are formal political institutions and processes. Indeed, citizens, particularly younger constituencies, seem to be shifting their preferred civic involvement from official politics to the voluntary sector.

The mystery concerns the disappearance of “social capital” and civic engagement in America. By social capital, one points to the networks, norms and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.[4] For some observers, an important cause for this decline in both trust and social capital is associated with big government and the growth of the welfare state. By “crowding out” private initiative, it is argued, state intervention has subverted civil society.[5]

There is a body of evidence that suggests that the decline in social capital is aligned with the marked decrease, for example, in the number of newspaper and journal readers. Since the end of the Second World War there has been a 50% drop off in readership. The corresponding disengagement with civic involvement are seen as linked.[6]

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer found declining public trust across business, media, NGOs and government.[7] A Gallup study indicated that in 26 out of 38 countries polled between 2007 and 2016, trust in national government dropped in the aggregate, and many countries have seen a decline of more than 20%.[8]

Meanwhile, a Pew Study of 38 countries suggests that trust in government is particularly low, with a global median of only 14% of the public saying they trust their national government “a lot” to do what is right for their society.[9]

Political scientists identified six critical factors that have contributed to the decline in US civil society: disruptive changes to the American economy; disillusion with public life; the cultural revolt against authority; growth of the welfare state; the civil rights revolution and the impact of the electronic and technological age.[10]

The Assault on Community:

There is a growing realization that “communities” are no longer organized around geography, but along values; group members are not neighbors, but co-adherents. … Self-selected virtual communities have replaced organic neighborhoods, and echo chambers have replaced the public square. 

“Social-capital-fueled exclusion may be troublesome when deployed by a racial minority group in a particular industry, but it becomes poisonous when deployed by a Madisonian “faction” with the ability to use the power of law or social norms to preserve its own cohesion, benefits, and privilege.”[11]

Yuval Levin writing in The Fractured Republic observed that “American civil “society has been weakened by a century-long assault from hyper-consolidation, followed by hyper-individualism, leaving it ‘not well positioned to turn subnational identities into interpersonal communities.’”[12]

Levin further argues: “Promoting social-capital habits that increase solidarity in this era of nationalist tendencies in policymaking and in-group hyper-definition in cultural habits will likely result in ever more balkanization and isolation.”

The Central Question: How Do we Reclaim Community?  

Ideally, we see the historic value of community, delivering key benefits to its participants and on occasion framing collective action.

The essential strengths of traditional communities involved the development of leaders for the greater good, the advancement of social, cultural and human services and the promotion of a sense of security, continuity and collective action. Communities served as gateways allowing its members to better manage and process social change and as a delivery system for messaging and the articulation of needs.

Moving forward, the focus on civic engagement and political participation may only represent a specific element of the emerging communal model.[13] We are in the process of reinventing the concept of community, just as we are moving to reimagine its many alternative forms of expression.

What are we learning? “Community” represents fundamentally distinctive value propositions for different constituencies. Older models of community are giving way to these newer iterations. But the critics of this traditional organizing format are arguing that the existing system benefited those already empowered and connected. The essential question then becomes how do we reach out to engage those not part of such organizing systems? 

An important case example of this traditional model involved the interlocking directorships and networked systems that defined the Jewish communal model of the late 20th Century. This level of connectedness represented a core ingredient permitting the community to effectively process and manage its agenda.

Rethinking the Idea of Community:

In preparing this material, I came across a number of writers and organizers, websites and books all focused on this question of reinventing community. Within the body of this paper, I am posting a few of my principal findings, realizing the availability of other organizing initiatives.

Communities will reflect different organizing priorities. In some cases, the focus will be framed around meeting psychological and emotional considerations of its participants, in other settings such structures will be deployed to manage single issue priorities. We can identify short term community organizing models that are constructed and then disbanded once the desired results have been achieved.

The question that many organizers and sociologists are posing has to do with both the “purpose” of a particular community and its “outcomes,” namely what is it designed to produce or achieve?[14]

One counter-proposal suggests that what is needed is “an opening up of pre-political space — to focus on good (rather than just proactive) governance, to empower the less-advantaged in local communities now dominated by the well-connected and well-off, and to allow space for unions, fraternal organizations and churches to prove themselves necessary.”

This model suggests a laisse faire approach rather than an effort to impose a “state-led” effort in rebuilding the communal order. This bottom-up organizing scheme might be seen as unsettling to more established institutional players. This format also represents a push-back against empowered groups by favoring the under-represented.

“If we seek an antidote to identity politics, to toxic exclusionism, to excessive tribalism, we must make intermediary associations necessary again.”[15]

The Social inclusion Model:[16]

A particular focus has been directed on transforming the idea of community into an economic investment model, generating a different form of individual buy-in, aligned with communal investments in property, businesses, services and institutions that can deliver collective benefits, both social and financial. This organizing framework is directed toward empowering the individual as a share-holder and investor, while at the same time, meeting the needs of underserved populations.[17]

Community Organizing Models:

Saul Alinsky’s focus on grass-roots community building (1971) has been recast in a 21st century version.[18]

The basic change strategy of this model can be summed up in the phrase – “let’s get the facts and take the logical next steps.” Fact finding and analysis is an essential technique in this model and tactics of conflict or consensus may be utilized depending on the analysis of a certain issue.[19] The empowerment of underrepresented constituencies is built around a mutual action plan to designed to create change, one issue at a time.

Community Readiness Model:

The direction here is outward, with the argument that the next successful models of community will be about serving the greater good![20]

Build communities that are prepared to address critical issues requiring collective engagement, whether around health, safety and more. The goal is to move one’s constituency to a state of ownership and activism, a shared agreement to act as a unit around solving a specific issue. Nine steps drive this framework:[21]

  • No awareness. The issue is not generally recognized by the community or leaders as a problem.
  • Denial/ resistance. At least some community members recognize that it is a concern[22], but there is little recognition that it might be occurring locally.
  • Vague awareness. Most feel that there is a local concern, but there is no immediate motivation to do anything about it.
  • Preplanning. There is clear recognition that something must be done, and there may even be a group addressing it. However, efforts are not focused or detailed.
  • Preparation. Active leaders begin planning in earnest. The community offers modest support of their efforts.
  • Initiation. Enough information is available to justify efforts. Activities are underway.
  • Stabilization. Activities are supported by administrators or community decision-makers. Staff are trained and experienced.
  • Confirmation/ expansion. Efforts are in place. Community members feel comfortable using services, and they support expansions. Local data are regularly obtained.
  • High level of community ownership. Detailed and sophisticated knowledge exists about prevalence, causes, and consequences. Effective evaluation guides new directions. The model is applied to other issues.

In this model we may be considering a fundamentally different configuration, framed from the bottom up and constructed around a narrower definition of who may constitute its affinity membership.

Jewish Communal Model:

In returning to the Jewish agenda, we acknowledge that the traditional communal model is rapidly disappearing. The loss of a collective and focused agenda, rapidly changing constituencies and the evolving roles of institutions are each contributing to the redefinition of how Jews will understand their organizing options.[23]

The Jewish story has always been about such transitional moments. The great shifts in the Jewish historical timeline reflect how “community” would be created and reinvented over time.

In some of my earlier publications, I address both the external (societal) elements as well as the internal (communal-based) factors that are contributing to this phenomenon.[24]

The idea of community and the value of the collective are being replaced by an overarching attention to individualism. The primacy of the sovereign-self remains a core challenge to communal organizers.

As the community transitions, the idea of a holistic, integrated communal model has given way to this new constellation of distributed power. The traditional organizing principles are being challenged and, in some instances, discarded. The concept of membership, the idea of affiliation and loyalty to denomination, among other organizing tools, are giving way to a more open and competitive market space. Emergent boutique models are being introduced, framed around alternative organizing principles and delivery models. 

Here then are some of the characteristics, extracted from writings from various sources, that will help to drive the next generation of Jewish community-building principles:

  • We will need to rewire the communal enterprise. 21st century Jews are asking both new and old questions, while demonstrating their distinctive passions and individualist behaviors.
  • The idea of a holistic, integrated communal model has given way to a new constellation of distributed power.
  • Rather than being reflective of a coherent community, our Jewish institutions will increasingly operate in pods, aligning with groups that share similar religious and political interests and who are likewise comfortable in forming collaborative arrangements of engagement and action. 
  • A different communal mindset centered is producing a culture of experimentation.
  • A new creative robustness is creating personalized, individuated Jewish initiatives, led by a mix of generational actors and innovative organizing models. This new presence is comprised of broad set of single-issue institutional expressions, with particular attention directed to specific sectors of our community, among these operational voices are activists giving specific attention to the broader social issues of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and generational preferences.
  • Social media represents an opportunity to create new avenues of connection and engagement with non-affiliated individuals and religious seekers in  expanding the reach of religious and communal messaging.

These and other organizing principles will emerge to reshape the Jewish communal marketplace. In the decades ahead, the imprint of entrepreneurial leadership, creative visioning and nimble funding strategies will define the Jewish public square. 

Both within the Jewish world and the civic arena, the many organizing options are being explored, as ways to recalibrate social engagement, civic activism, and communal participation. As innovation and experimentation dominate both the public square and the Jewish marketplace, the search for community is being unleashed. 

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies and currently serves as the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.


[1] https://www.brookings.edu/articles/americas-civic-condition-a-glance-at-the-evidence/

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.bushcenter.org/catalyst/your-town/sasse-hollowing-communities.html

[4] https://prospect.org/infrastructure/strange-disappearance-civic-america/

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://www.slideshare.net/EdelmanInsights/2017-edelman-trust-barometer-global-results-71035413

[8] https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/government-at-a-glance-2017/trust-in-government_gov_glance-2017-76-en

[9] https://ourworldindata.org/trust

[10] https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/whokilledcivicamerica

[11] https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-dark-side-of-social-capital

[12] https://www.npr.org/2016/06/07/481137357/the-fractured-republic-explores-how-nostalgia-led-to-polarized-politics

[13] https://medium.com/redefining-communities/how-we-define-community-a-collection-e548b5a730ad

[14] https://rosie.land/posts/a-very-big-list-of-community-models-and-ideas/

[15] Ibid.

[16] https://ssir.org/articles/entry/six_ways_to_repair_declining_social_trust

[17] https://donorbox.org/nonprofit-blog/community-service-ideas


[18] https://www.citizenshandbook.org/rules.html

[19] https://www.thegrassrootscollective.org/community-organising


[21] https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/overview/models-for-community-health-and-development/community-readiness/main

[23]  https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-transformational-moment-the-american-jewish-communal-order-in-the-post-pandemic-age/

[24] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/moving-beyond-strategies-for-restarting-our-community/

[25] https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/348595/rethinking-the-jewish-communal-enterprise/

[26] https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/planning-for-the-jewish-future/