Reinventing the Jewish Public Square: Promoting a Jewish Community Relations Model for the 21st Century

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

In an age, where communal consensus has given way to a significant political divide and where Jews are redefining their social policy priorities, how might the Jewish public affairs sector respond? At a time of generational transitions, organizational disruption, and political upheaval, in what ways can the Jewish community relations field reinvent itself? Questions concerning the future of our community’s public policy sector are being introduced here as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Conference is set to begin its National Conference this weekend in New York.

By way of background, we are reminded how rapidly and significantly our society in general is under going change, placing additional and specific pressure on the Jewish advocacy movement. These are but a few of the evolving dominant social transitions taking place in 21st century America:

  • Within twenty years, Islam will replace Judaism as America’s third major religious community.
  • Millennials represent the largest generation cohort in American history, reshaping the cultural fabric of this society and the institutional behaviors of our community.
  • By the year 2043, this nation will cease to be a dominant “white” society as it evolves into a multi-racial and multi-ethnic culture.
  • America is aging, by 2030, 20% of this nation’s population will be 65 and over.
  • Social media has replaced print journalism as the primary news source for many Americans.
  • Americans today are expressing the lowest confidence levels in public institutions and governmental leaders in U.S. history.

If these trends are seen as both significant and transformative, more narrowly, new Jewish American generations are redefining their connections to Jewish life and our society:

  • Expressing a deep passion and commitment to the social justice agenda
  • Demonstrating pride in being Jewish
  • Distancing their connections with the State of Israel
  • Desiring to build holistic lives where personal values are reflected in communal practice
  • Removing one-self from formal religious denominationalism (“religious nones”) and from other expressions of institutional obligation
  • Experimenting with different types of social engagement and alternative forms of “community.”

Today, the behaviors and priorities of Millennials and Generation Z remind us of how our society is changing[1]. They are seeking a shared conversation in connection with the great political issues of our times. These are generations employing social media and other forms of political expression to carry forward their messages and ideas. More directly, Millennials and their counterparts are prepared to push back against the politics of hate and the seeds of anti-Semitism and racism, as they are expressly committed to social justice. Indeed, as they seek to produce social change, this generational cohort is launching new initiatives designed to advance their specific interests. In moving their ideas forward, frequently they elect to operate outside of established forms of established communal expression.

As a result of these and other demographic realities, a “new American Jew” is evolving[2]. The “sovereign self” is replacing the traditional focus on the “collective.” In this context “individualized choice” is minimizing institutional affiliation. The idea of “community” has given way to a privatized American Judaism[3].

As our communal sector seeks to build consensus and to manage the ‘great Jewish divide[4],’ the community relations enterprise is challenged to reinvent itself[5]. Correspondingly, as legacy institutions seek to address issues of mission, fund development, and communal priorities, the public policy arena must likewise redefine its future role and function within this changing organizational culture. Adding to this social construct, we are witness to the changing political character of American Jewry, a community that finds itself bereft of a shared agenda and in some measure profoundly disconnected from the core legacy institutions that at one time defined the Jewish marketplace and held their allegiances[6].

The rich hundred-year history and contributions of the Jewish community relations enterprise ought not to be minimized. In such distinctive areas as promoting intergroup relations, advancing interfaith understanding, advocating for Israel and global Jewish concerns, fighting racism and anti-Semitism, and promoting the public policy interests of American Jewry, the organizations that comprise this movement, both local and national, have left their imprint on this society and within our community.

Federations and their community relations agencies are caught between the external pressures to speak out and act on the public policy issues of priority to many Jewish Americans and the push back of others who oppose such initiatives. The Jewish community will indeed need to acknowledge these political realities by seeding alternative expressions of social action.

In response to both the generic social revolution now underway and the more specific Jewish communal transitions, the ten-part plan, introduced below, is designed to create a conversation focusing on the community relations field and its pathway forward. For the first time since 1951, when Professor Robert MacIver was commissioned to undertake a study of the Jewish community relations field, it may be appropriate to re-examine the operational principles that today drive this discipline.

The ideas introduced here, along with those that I and others have shared in earlier postings, focus on revisiting core assumptions and rethinking traditional modalities of communal practice. This proposal calls for the creation of a new methodology of how one engages new generations of Jewish activists, while being responsive to the changing American political environment. These recommendations emphasize not merely operational changes but address a basic cultural realignment:

  1. Seeding new forms of community organizing initiatives that parley the goals and priorities of younger Jewish activists by promoting alternative forms of political action. A culture of experimentation is required in order to test different forms of Jewish political organizing. Letting “many flowers bloom” ought to be the basis for this new organizing paradigm, where new models of community advocacy are introduced and supported. In reality, this multi-pronged approach to public policy is well underway, as groups operating in the Jewish marketplace already reflect this growing diversity of opinion and practice.
  2. Deconstructing a 20th century “silo” and “competitive” institutional system in favor of a 21st century culture of promoting a collaborative, integrative communal framework. A shared engagement model will permit a seamless interconnect or synergy among partner organizations, involving both legacy and boutique community models, permitting new participants a gateway of choices with reference to their political orientation and policy preferences.
  3. Sponsoring leadership development programs for new generations of public policy wonks and community organizers. Reseeding this field with knowledgeable and engaged professionals and lay leaders must be seen as core to building the next iteration of this field.
  4. Developing a public policy map identifying this growing Jewish political sector with its many expressions and perspectives reflecting the diversity of the American political landscape.
  5. Creating a public policy think tank designed to examine the issues and strategies critical to the community’s long-term interests. The community will need to invest critical resources in managing its pro-Israel agenda, fighting old and new forms of anti-Semitism, and identifying potential threats to the Jewish community, as well as new opportunities for communal involvement.
  6. Defining the “new realities” of the American social landscape, by creating a national Jewish consultation on the changing demographic, cultural and social factors that will impact and shape Jewish political action priorities.
  7. Promoting the introduction of Jewish “town halls” across the country where public policy issues can be vetted and where thoughtful, civil discourse can take place, without the necessity of requiring policy statements or joint action. JCRC’s policy and advocacy functions should be limited to those compelling issues of Jewish security, and where collective national action is required. In this context we will be creating “communities of conversation” designed to frame the essential issues of these times.
  8. Formulating an intergroup relations strategy for working with America’s growing diverse ethnic, racial, and religious communities. The focus on building new connections and renewing old partnerships represents a critical piece to 21st century social activism. American Jewish advocacy, as in the past, must identify and nurture these crucial relationships.
  9. Engaging financial resources and expertise beyond the existing federation-based model, by reaching out to private donors, family philanthropic funds, and community foundations in helping to design and implement these structural and policy initiatives. The creation of a multi-dimensional, integrated advocacy system ought to interest the philanthropic community as it seeks to identify ways to employ its resources to reach and serve younger Jewish constituents.
  10. Mastering social media, as this is a generation that defines itself around its distinctive communications style and skills. Building “brand” becomes an essential feature of 21st century organizations or communal systems.

This new format reframes the relationships with an array of key stakeholders, including federations, the traditional national “defense” agencies, and the multiple social justice and policy organizations that now dot the Jewish landscape.

  • Assisting Jewish activists in finding their particular niche and institutional expression represents the first organizing principle.
  • Shifting the focus of mainstream convener organizations, such as JCRC’s, to perform roles as essential information and educational centers.
  • Shaping a new operating culture of fluidity and access whereby individuals can easily move between and among differing ideological and organizational expressions to find their respective voices.
  • Promoting new models of communal practice and advocacy.

It speaks less to nurturing the idea of building Jewish policy and consensus making arrangements and more to the notion that JCRC’s must be seen as entry points for community education and connection, as we remind ourselves that Jews reflect today the diversity of America itself. In its changing roles, JCRC’s will function as a community resource, funder, organizer, and manager of the public affairs agenda.

Indeed, this proposal will leave many proponents of the JCRC system unhappy as it moves much of the policy functions and advocacy roles to other constituencies. In previous writings here and elsewhere, I have focused on specific areas of communal performance, Jewish political behavior, and particular social trends that are contributing to the redefinition of Jewish life, requiring organizations to re-think key assumptions and best practices[7-see below]. Such is the case today for the field of Jewish community relations.

The Jewish advocacy community stands at a critical juncture. As such, it will be essential to chart a different structural direction for the community relations field.


Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus, HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. From 1985-1995, Steven served as the CRC Director in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website,