Revisiting the Third American Jewish Revolution: Reoccurring Themes, New Perspectives

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Six years ago, as this nation was coming out of the 2008-2010 recession, I prepared an article for this publication, entitled “The Third American Jewish Revolution.”

As we look back both on that specific time frame and examine what has transpired since the release of that article, how well did Jewish organizations manage in dealing with the impact of the recession and what changes are we able to identify in its aftermath?

The 2012 article not only referenced the impact of the recession but offered a number of scenarios about the future behavior and structure of the American Jewish enterprise. At that time, we introduced the following “paradigm”:

Crisis-Based Model: Driven by an agreed-upon agenda. Protecting and defending Jews and Jewish interests. Building and sustaining a Jewish State and bringing Jews in crisis to freedom Entrepreneurial Model: Driven by the marketplace. Creating alternative choices for Jewish engagement. Aligning Jewish values and interests with the universal and secular environment in which young Jews would find themselves Economies of Scale Model: Driven by the market conditions, the community will have limited resources to manage an array of economic challenges and choices
Collective Responsibility: Demonstrating a significant international focus along with other national, regional, and community-based features Selective Engagement: Primarily individualized responses directed toward local purposes and personal causes, de-emphasizing the broader commitments to collective responsibility Focus on the Vulnerable: Return to the notion of neighborhood, i.e. community and the essential elements of human and social services
We Are One: Centralized and Unified borders and boundaries shaped by those who define themselves as part of “community” The Sovereign-Self: Borders and boundaries are less-significant as expressed in trans-denominationalism and Jewish renewal A Bad Economy Needs a Good Community: Recapturing the core elements of the communal/religious networks
A highly integrated federation-community model functioning with incremental change New, often highly diffused institutional responses, generally initiated on the edge Seeking to Recapture the Center: Crisis situations demand coordination and collaboration
Focus on continuity and institutional maintenance with a significant emphasis on international Jewish communal issues Driven by innovation and experimentation, with a specific focus on locally based interests and activities Back to Basics: The focus is on the “safety-net” and to refocus attention to basic services and core mission.
Multi-issue institutions Single-issue constituencies Mergers and Acquisitions
Jewish identity and continuity as the primary themes, based on the notion of Jews seeking acceptance and recognition Jewish identity is seen as one of the competing ideas in an age in which Jewish “acceptance” is complete Jews Take Care of their Own”: Is this premise still viable? Will Jews respond through their communal and religious networks?
Generational-Neutral: Serving all age groups Generational-Nuanced: Specialized services to particular constituencies Reaching Back and Moving Forward: Many are facing these challenges involving all generations
Fund development is based on traditional campaign models, with some experimentation on the edges A new group of “funders” have entered the scene and are underwriting a significant number of new initiatives and/or capturing older institutions and reinventing them Everything is in Play: Institutions are in search of resources from all sectors and venues. At a time of scarcity, organizations return to their core mission, divesting themselves of ancillary activities.
Traditional organizational and affiliation patterns are prevalent, including a high premium on belonging and the value of membership The idea of “joining” has given way to dropping in and also dropping out. Technology as shaping and reinventing communal practice Exploration of New Models of Giving and Affiliation: The search for alternative ways to organize, market, and invest resources
Built on peer relationships and shared expectations Constructed around individuals with shared interests, seeking specific outcomes Everyone is Hurting: This is a moment that focuses attention on securing personal and collective sustainability
Institutions and structures as central images and symbols of “community” Networks of relationships that form and may even disband once defined goals are explored and achieved Recapturing Connections: This is about sustaining and nurturing core relationships
Israel and the Holocaust seen as central organizing and sustaining principles Themes related to relevance and immediacy dominant, as taken from the culture of the 90’s. The Reemergence of Images of the 1930s: Many of the elements we identify today as core to meeting social and communal needs
Over time a Jewish “communal” vocabulary has been created that reflected a particular time period and set of players. A whole new vocabulary is emerging that aligns Jewish ideas with the contemporary culture, i.e. “New Jewish Cool” Return to the Core Vocabulary: Basic community organizing principles are being re-introduced

Since the “economic downturn” there has existed an institutional unevenness with regard to the economic performance of organizations. In some measure we find communal institutions still dealing with the manifestations of this earlier period. Indeed, some groups are experiencing extraordinary growth, fueled by new funders, while other organizations are reporting limited to sporadic growth in their fund development efforts.

The Trump Era: The 2016 election and the resulting tax law changes are likely to have their own impact on the nonprofit world. It may still be too early to fully assess the impact of this legislation on the third sector. Combined with a decrease in the top marginal tax rate, the disincentive to itemize would reduce charitable giving by $4.9 billion to $13.1 billion annually, according to a May study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

The budgetary priorities of this administration will leave fewer federal dollars to underwrite social welfare funding, educational initiatives and other traditional federal programs. What is the impact of these reduced funds on Jewish social service agencies?

Some General Observations: Indeed, some of the behaviors associated with the “third revolution” appear to still be in play. Among the most significant patterns, “reaching back and moving forward” and “recapturing connections” involve organizations drawing upon traditional supporters and longstanding relationships. In maintaining established practices, a significant number of institutions can be described as “frozen in time.”

Mergers and acquisitions” are still playing a role in a community that appears to be over-saturated with organizations while experiencing declining affiliation patterns!

The economic crisis of a decade ago should have been instructive to the communal system. How many organizations are planning for the next recession or Wall Street debacle? There is minimal evidence today that institutions are prepared for the inevitable. If the “third revolution” offered any sustaining lessons, this factor alone should serve as a teachable moment.

As noted in the chart posted above, the focus on the “exploration of new models of giving and affiliation” continues. Indeed, if a “bad economy requires a good community,” then living in a strong economy may well demand an extraordinary community, one that is competitive, yet creative, to attract a changing consumer marketplace! As the economic environment has changed, how resourceful is the Jewish community in growing its market share?

In many ways the attention given during the recession toward “recapturing the center” by seeking to rebuild core communal institutions and services has all but dissipated in the wake of the return to a business-as-usual mindset. The deepening political divide that today defines the communal scene is contributing to a form of institutional malaise. The current political climate is contributing to the absence of Jewish political assertiveness. Mainstream organizations, fearful of losing donor support, are hesitant to offer pubic statements on major public policy matters.

One of the more intriguing questions: are the political divisions in connection with Israel contributing to the downsizing of financial support for the Jewish state in general and for specific Israel-based organizations in particular? Or, in response to these “wars among the Jews” are we actually seeing a growth in Israel-based funding as partisans line up to support their respective causes?

Since this episodic moment the most significant change revolves around the presence of a major leadership transition, both professional and lay, as institutions have replaced many of those who had led our community through the economic crisis. This leadership transition is reflective of the changing conditions as well as the natural order of generational shifts. A generation of recognized and respected senior leaders is now giving way to a new cohort of communal leaders. What seems apparent for many organizations, the leaders who were charged with taking institutions through this difficult time frame will not be a part of the next phase of reinventing and repositioning many of our legacy and start up structures.

Five other “factors” are contributing to influencing and reshaping the communal platform:

  • Technology continues to impact, alter and drive organizational practice as new options become available for both donors and charities.
  • Growing impact and influence of foundation giving, in contrast to the declining roles of umbrella institutions, such as United Way and Jewish Federations.
  • The continued expansion and growth of selected boutique Jewish organizations, creating increased competition within the community for members and funders.
  • Shifting generational characteristics and changing demographic factors are contributing to the continuation of lower affiliation patterns and membership numbers, and
  • The spike in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism may represent key unknown factors in potentially driving marginal and disaffected Jews to seek reengagement.

Indeed, some community organizers have suggested that periods of communal disengagement, whether created by economic factors, political conditions or lifestyle choices are likely to give way to patterns of community renewal. In a time frame such as this one, are folks more likely to seek connections with communal or religious institutions as a way to re-create community? While these expressions of re-engagement may not reflect traditional community models, they do offer some interesting possibilities of producing “alternative” forms of participation and social activism. Are we in a new “revolutionary” organizational era? Only time will define the characteristics of the changing character of institutional practice.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball campus of HUC-JIR in Los Angles. His writings can be found on his website,