Rosh Hashanah 5778: Challenging Ourselves and the Jewish Communal System

We believe that it is time to create a new typology of Jewish organizations, one that reflects the many changes and new realities.

Community mapping/network map; screenshot UVic Community Mapping Collaboratory.

By Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D. & Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Complications of Communal Planning in the 21st Century:

According to the Zohar (Terumah 161b), before the creation of the world, God looked into the Torah, using it as a kind of architectural plan. This is a bold metaphor, suggesting that even a presumed Omniscient Creator needed a blueprint to transform a chaotic world into a more orderly universe.

As a thriving 21st century Jewish community with unprecedented power and resources, we also require the capacity to plan and act collectively. But many of the last century’s organizations and systems that accomplished so much collective good for the Jewish community are no longer working. We lack an updated map of our organizational landscape as we need to think differently about the possibility of planning for collective Jewish impact in a radically new communal landscape.

In the 20th Century, our federations led planning efforts on behalf of the Jewish community shaping a national communal agenda. This could occur because:

  • the world was more stable;
  • several powerful, established legacy organizations could impose their visions about what was best for “the Jewish community” because social networks and media did not exist, which allowed individuals to dissent and challenge established hierarchies;
  • and, leaders of organizations, along with the first wave of philanthropists, were connected to the historic events and carried with them the memories that define the 20th century Jewish story, i.e. The Shoah, the founding of the State of Israel and the Six Day War. Today’s Gen X’ers and Millennials share more in common with their contemporary peers than their immigrant past.

Already at the beginning of the 21st Century, it was clear that the Jewish community was undergoing a fundamental structural transformation, encompassing demographic, philanthropic, and psychographic changes. The very phrase “Jewish community” provoked discussions at the elite and grassroots levels about who was empowered to define its parameters and what was best for it. A robust and numerically significant cluster of start-up Jewish organizations offer alternative and sometimes conflicting views to those of the establishment.

In this century, what complicates the prospects of planning for the collective Jewish good is that during other transformations it was possible to approximate their beginning and ending points and identify when a new, stable replacement paradigm of Jewish community had established itself. Today, we are witnessing accelerating and exponential change in all areas. Faith-based communities are equally exposed to the dynamic forces that have disrupted and transformed the structure and operations of most industries and many institutions. This new Jewish paradigm is one of instability and disequilibrium without a clear endpoint in sight.

Attributes of the Current Communal Landscape:

In the past, the landscape of Jewish organizations was much more centralized and hierarchical. The last systematic typology of Jewish organizations was conducted by the late Daniel Elazar (Community and Polity, second edition,1995). His excellent analysis of the structure and practice of the American Jewish community provided professional and volunteer leaders with a broad, comprehensive overview of the Jewish marketplace. That overview was supplemented by national and local Jewish population studies, providing the community with more granular information.

Elazar’s typology is about twenty-five years old and is now outdated. Since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the federation system seems to have lacked the desire or ability to mobilize local Jewish communities around systemic policy discussions. That was true even when the Pew Center, a “gold standard” research organization, issued its 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. Instead, legacy organizations, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, have focused more on individual issues including religious pluralism in Israel and domestic security for Jewish institutions then overarching planning strategies.

Mapping Jewish organizations last century was possible because there were fewer of them and because American Jewish leaders more readily agreed upon an imperfect but identifiable set of significant causes. Mapping Jewish organizations was desirable because understanding the organizational landscape could guide funders in their decision-making. There were mechanisms for allocating resources to react to urgent crises, to lead proactively around critical issues that could positively affect the vitality of the American Jewish community, and greater ability to advocate for and coordinate with a measure of unity and collective action.

But the 21st century has produced a market place where many centers of Jewish creativity exist and present individuals with boutique models of engagement. The attributes of today’s Jewish community include:

  1. We are no longer one community but rather can be described as multiple pods or communities. Where once there was more of a shared consensus about the Jewish story, today individuals construct their own Jewish storyline. The collective mythology of “One People, One Destiny” has given way to a highly personal rendering of the Jewish message. We are residing in a post-peoplehood condition.
  2. Choice and diversity are dominant themes when describing 21st century American Jewry. “Choice” is reflected in the broader cultural behaviors of this generation of Americans in general. “Diversity” suggests the growing impact of intermarriage and social interaction among groups within our society on Jewish consciousness and behavior.
  3. The current operational shifts that one finds taking place within Jewish life are driven by two primary factors: new generations of American Jews and the availability of multiple funding streams. Today, these new philanthropic dollars are supporting the social values and political passions of this generation. A new Jewish ecology of websites, organizations, and movements has emerged in response to the changing landscape.
  4. At one point, Israel generally bound the Jewish community together, but today conversations around the Jewish State create deep divides. In turn, the institutions of our respective generations reflect the messages of their cohort populations. For example, older Jews resonate with the federation-type messaging. While AIPAC cultivates Jewish leaders who are aligned with a more “mainstream” Israel message, J Street has been very adept at connecting with a younger Jewish base.
  5. The social revolution that is underway has placed special focus on individual behaviors, rejecting the older, traditional modality with its emphasis on community, continuity, loyalty and collective engagement. In its place has emerged an array of single-issue causes and individualized Jewish expressions of engagement.
  6. Today, we understand Jewish identity formation as an evolving, idiosyncratic construct, drawing upon aspects of a Jewish historical narrative that integrates global issues with personal values and theology. For example, individuals who are passionate about social justice can draw upon sources from the Jewish tradition that compel them to support the “BDS” movement from a place of love for Israel. However, others who love Israel and care deeply about social justice can just as authentically read Jewish texts that motivate them to combat “BDS.” We cite this example to illustrate that any rethinking of how policy is made today must substitute a binary mentality for a more nuanced one that allows for divergent viewpoints. We are not claiming that all viewpoints are equally valid, but that we need to enlarge our capacity to hold “both/and” positions instead of “either/or” views if we want a broader, inclusive community.

What We Stand to Gain with a 21st Century Mapping Project:

Given these dramatic and significant changes, based on our complementary work and research in the Jewish community, we believe that it is time to create a new typology of Jewish organizations, one that reflects these many changes and new realities. An open-source approach to mapping the American Jewish landscape that would be available as a resource for decision-making and policy guidance. After creating this new typology, it would be necessary to address some of the questions unique to the 21st century, among them:

  1. As the very adjective “Jewish” is open to debate, on what basis would an organization be considered to be a part of the American Jewish landscape? Would Jewish Voices for Peace be included or excluded due to its anti-Israel? In a similar vein, would Christians United for Israel have a place on the map?
  2. Does an organization need to be in existence for a certain number of years in order to be included? Must it have a minimum budgetary threshold or a minimum membership base?
  3. Would organizations be invited to collaborate with one another in the process of remapping the community? By using web-based platforms, individuals could crowd-source their knowledge in real-time, and we could quickly develop and maintain an accurate, up-to-date map (think of platforms like Wikipedia as an example). If it is collaborative, who would monitor the organizations so that groups like Jews for Jesus (the perennial litmus test for drawing boundaries, at least until today) would be excluded?
  4. A mapping process should also include information on funding and revenue streams of Jewish organizations. What can we forecast about future priorities of the Jewish community from some of the wealthiest foundations when changes in funding priorities have taken place over the past decade, especially in cases where they have transitioned leadership to the next generation? What impact has online giving had on organizations, and what can we learn from Amplifier, a platform that facilitates the formation of Jewish giving circles? To what extent has the approach of “impact investing” entered Jewish funders’ decision-making within established organizations including federations and newer foundations? While annual federation campaigns have typically been declining, a number of federations have built considerable endowments through their related foundations. What kind of future planning or prioritization of issues have these particular communities undertaken?
  5. Given the dizzying pace of organizational change (mergers, startups, strategic partnerships, closings), it makes limited sense to map the community without plans for ongoing and preferably real-time updates. How will those efforts be incorporated into plans for mapping the community?

The purpose of maintaining a map of the community is to enable leaders to proactively plan for opportunities to strengthen Jewish life, identify organizational synergies, mobilize for action and mitigate or avoid catastrophic events. Indeed, a review of the achievements of leaders of Jewish institutions and philanthropists from the last several decades of the 20th Century are still stunning in retrospect, especially when we consider that they worked in a voluntary and imperfect Jewish communal system! In part, it was the hierarchical structure of the community, led by “Jewish elites,” that enabled these remarkable accomplishments.

But today, networks and hierarchies co-exist. We note the emergence of networks of individuals who are effectively mobilizing on an ad hoc basis for a specific cause or for the purpose of creating a permanent presence; these new initiatives are competing with the established hierarchical systems. While they lack the “power of the purse,” they possess tremendous capacity to influence change.

A new year signifies more than a date on the Jewish calendar. At its essence, it is an opportunity to renew ourselves and our communities. Communal renewal, like self-renewal, is hard work. It requires introspection, and a willingness to relinquish patterns of planning that served us well at one time but limit our ability to thrive today. At the same time, this work of renewal is incredibly energizing. We are a resilient community, and as we look back at past achievements, and the rich diversity of Jewish life today, we are confident that new and veteran leaders can re-envision a thriving 21st Century Jewish community.

Our question to veteran leaders is, “Can we let go of some of the past to make room for divergent views?” And to younger leaders, “Can you open yourselves more to listening (not being lectured to, but listening) to opinions that unsettle you?” In that space of shared listening and mutual learning, we have the potential to open even more inventive pathways to a thriving Jewish community in the years ahead.

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

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, presenter and organizational futurist, and C.E.O. of which “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.” ™ His latest book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, co-authored with Dr. Terri Elton, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.

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