Reimagining the American Jewish communal model

As with all entrenched systems, the Jewish communal institutional model is resistant to change. Transitions often take decades to unfold. The events surrounding Oct. 7 and beyond require us to rethink the Jewish communal narrative, but the changes required must be more dramatic and direct than at any other time.

If we have learned anything over these past 250 days, it is that the Jewish street, experiencing both fear and uncertainty, is demanding and actively seeking different outcomes. A difficult war involving Israel against Hamas, the growing tensions and divisions among Jews, and the presence of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist actions on our campuses and within our communities, all are contributing to this disruptive and unsettling environment. For our communal leaders and institutional systems, this is a potentially transformational moment as we face unanswered questions. Did we fail to understand the profound changes taking place around us? It appears we misread or missed a number of political cues domestically, as I discussed in my most recent article in eJewishPhilanthropy; but on an even broader, international scale, the Jewish world did not grasp the severity of the security threat against Israel from Iran and its proxies, nor did we sufficiently account for the ongoing impact of Islamic fundamentalist ideas and practices in general and Hamas specifically. 

Communalism and progressivism have served as the framework of the Jewish community’s organizational system in the U.S. since the 19th century. This model served the community well for 125 years, delivering social services, promoting advocacy initiatives, establishing recreational and cultural activities and creating various religious and educational institutional options. This was a system of silo-based organizations, loosely held together through both federated and denominational umbrella structures. It was designed to compete in the marketplace for brand, member and financial standing, while effectively contributing to the formation of a distinctive American Jewish identity and responding to Jewish domestic and international crises. This nonprofit model emulated many of the behaviors and practices that defined the American business model, where competition represented a core behavior and value.

What we are learning is that the existing communal structure and its cultural artifacts will not serve us well moving forward. We need to shift from a reactive communal model to a proactive one as we reframe the case for who we are and what we represent as American Jews, and how we redefine the case for Israel and Zionism as an integral part of Western civilization and the global human story. 

Zooming out: A framework overhaul

The changes we require must occur on several fronts, and new organizing principles will be in play:

  • An integrative, collaborative culture
  • An analytical, market research-driven approach
  • An outcomes-based orientation
  • An entrepreneurial and proactive operational model
  • A national Jewish communications framework

Presented as a whole: We need to create a coordinated, collective communal framework where decision-making will be aligned with research-based market data. This new organizing framework needs to be built around a business model designed to produce specific and targeted outcomes, and this focus on outcomes needs to be aligned with a national Jewish communications strategy. Finally, in crafting our messaging we need to understand the information consumption habits of the audiences with whom we want to connect (Where do they get their information? How? From whom?) and how that information establishes the beliefs that inform their actions.

Zooming in: Managing the fight against antisemitism

The structural side of re-engineering the Jewish communal orbit represents only one piece of the broader programmatic management agenda. In the fight against anti-Zionism and antisemitism, for instance, we will require a different organizing strategy for responding to this new assault on Jews, Israel and Zionism. 

First, we need to unpack the “why”: What are the beliefs and outcomes that define this current campaign of hate? In addition, we need to also ask “who”: We must establish, for ourselves and for the public’s knowledge, which governments, organizations and individuals are driving this campaign against us and identify the outcomes they are seeking to achieve. Only then, we can approach the “how” in connection with the best strategies and tools in responding to this campaign being waged against Jews and Israel.

As we revisit the strategies and outcomes we are employing when dealing with antisemitism, we have historically operated in a defensive mode against Jewish hatred, in reactive stance in response to criticism of Israel, and in an apologist mindset when dealing with Jewish communal actions. In this new iteration, we must shift to a proactive, assertive response. We will need as part of this new communications strategy to become sellers of ideas and opportunities. Judaism, as an example, must be seen as a value-added, positive, embracing set of ideas and practices supporting us to live in the world and to actualize constructive change. How such organizing principles are ultimately introduced, embedded, and acculturated represents a major cultural and operational challenge for our community. 

Moving forward: A new leadership paradigm 

All that will be required as part of this communal remake begins with the creation of a distinctive 21st-century leadership paradigm.

Preparedness: Jewish leaders, both professional and lay, need to understand the art of communications, crisis management, community organizing and advocacy, and entrepreneurship. We will require leaders who are themselves knowledgeable about Jewish culture, history and of immediate concern, the case for Israel.

It is incumbent on all of us to engage in a refresher moment regarding understanding Zionism — its history and evolution — and reconnecting with Israel’s storyline if we are going to be effective respondents and educators.

Additionally, we as a community must invest with those institutions and educational partners who are working to create cutting-edge materials designed to educate and inform all of us but especially for those who are seeking new insights about Zionism, promoting innovative responses to promoting the case for Israel, and advancing arguments designed to push back against those who are critical of US support for Israel. We will require the necessary language in responding to those alienated and disconnected from Israel, Zionism and Judaism. In this moment, we require new strategies for working with those who are alienated and disaffected.

Front-line orientation: Every Jewish professional must be equipped to help reframe the Israel/Jewish case and to deal with the dilemmas and questions concerning Israel, Zionism, and anti-Semitism. We are now all partners in this retelling. We must be in the public square, listening to those with whom we disagree while reaffirming the case for Israel. We must be the effective front lines of our community. We must each become important and essential resources in telling our shared story.

Engage, collaborate and foster connectedness: In some measure, we, as the professional representatives and lay leadership of our community’s institutions, symbolize stability and continuity. We all have a responsibility to be present for our students, clients and members, answering their questions, acknowledging their pain and embracing their fears and concerns. 

Additionally, every organization professional must think collaboratively and focus on opportunities for collective action. We are entering a unique moment where we can demonstrate to our community our shared commitment to working together as we seek to model unity and purpose.

Every institution must be seen as a gateway for seekers. We acknowledge the many Jews who, often for the first time, are asking questions of us as they search for their space and voice in the community. We have a unique opportunity to reimagine how we deliver core services, manage our interpersonal relationships and welcome new folks into our spaces. In transitional moments, we must employ our skills to connect, to listen and to embrace. This is our moment to engage and inspire those with whom we serve and partner.

Additionally, we need to encourage our community members to reach out to their Israeli family members, friends, and work partners and provide support and comfort. We are recommitting to building these core connections.

Security: We must ensure that all Jewish spaces — our camps, schools, synagogues, agencies and centers — will continue to operate safely. Our commitment to the community’s welfare and safety must be paramount.

This article is intended to open a series of discussions on the state of our community, one that will examine the principles and practices introduced here along with other takeaways from the impact of this transformative moment. If we employ these conversations and the ideas they generate to be proactive rather than reactive, we can seize this opportunity to reimagine the Jewish future.

Steven F. Windmueller is professor emeritus of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.