Some Reflections on the State of the Jewish Federation System

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Federations represent one of the most unique institutions within the North American Jewish landscape. In many ways its evolution and structure reflect the alignment of core Jewish values of tzedakah with the American pubic policy commitment to social welfare. This blending together of the nonprofit framework with historic Jewish principles of communal responsibility has enabled federations to construct this extraordinary service system.

Initially launched at the end of the 19th century, the federation system has come to symbolize the power and capacity of the Jewish community to care for its own, while advocating for the general well-being of the society. Over the past 65 years, since the inception of the State of Israel, no other institution on the current communal landscape was equipped to have as effectively managed the crisis moments of the Jewish people. The credibility of this system’s past successes ought not to be minimized, just as it now must pursue a new vision for its future.

But as I have written elsewhere, umbrella systems and national movements at this moment in time face a series of distinctive operational challenges, clearly different in scope from membership-based organizations and direct service agencies.[1] In their struggle to rediscover their identity and direction, umbrella structures must engage with questions of mission, sustainability, and destiny. Can these types of systems continue to operate? What ought they to represent in this new and changing social environment?

An Overview:

The scope and intensity of change taking place within our society goes well beyond the Jewish community. The impact of these transitions must be seen as comparable to the industrial revolution in recasting the modern world. What our society is experiencing does not represent merely an exercise in the process of change management rather this phenomenon must be understood as a structural and cultural tsunami.[2] Many forces are contributing to this social recalibration, including the broader economic crisis, the communications and technology revolution, and the changing demographic character of our society.

Implications for the Jewish Community:

In my work on “The Second American Jewish Revolution,” I specifically outlined the core institutional and structural challenges within the Jewish community. If our traditional organizations (“first revolutionary”) were built around the ideas of community, affiliation, collective responsibility, a shared historical story, and a common destiny, then, the millennial generation is creating a new vision of the Jewish future. For this new cohort of Jews, such notions as the sovereign self, single-issue concerns, and target marketing represent a new and different organizing basis. This generational model seeks to reconfigure Jewish life away from a shared mindset to a focus on silo-Judaism, a shift from collectivism to individualism.[3]

For the nonprofit sector in its broadest terms and for the Jewish communal system in more concrete ways, a series of new and complex elements must be considered:

Geography and Size Count: As communities struggle to re-envision their communal enterprise, we are seeing federations in communities with declining Jewish populations and facing diminished resources confronting structural questions (how best to organize and sustain the communal enterprise?) and economic challenges (how to support core functions when facing reduced or stagnant campaigns?). Yet, in other regions of the country, we are witnessing the growth of new institutional possibilities as communities demonstrate new levels of vitality.

In some settings one can hear conversations questioning the necessity of maintaining the federated system. “What would happen if federations simply went out of existence?” “Do we need umbrella organizations any longer?”

Indeed, one can argue that some of the “traditional” roles played by particular federations might be eliminated but to suggest that such an entity disappear from the American Jewish landscape would be highly problematic. The notion of locality or community remains a unique and defining element to this story, as federations are distinctively reflective of their communities, their cultures, histories and traditions.

I begin with the concept of “value-added” where the structural basis of this system remains intact. To mobilize a community in times of crisis, to manage and direct communal planning and programming, to raise essential funds for the welfare of the Jewish people, and to advocate for the policy interests of the Jewish people are functions essential to the sustaining local systems. Here, I would add another element, requiring of us to think beyond the moment toward envisioning the Jewish future, as federations explore what will be their collective and as well as distinctive roles in 21st century Jewish life.

Umbrella structures can provide key services; their challenge in this uncertain environment will be to both build upon their prior success and to mobilize their communal partners to appreciate the new avenues of Jewish activism and to acknowledge the changing characteristics and priorities of our communities.

One Message No Longer Fits All: Once a system bound by a common focus, today one finds the federation world in search of alternative visions, different sets of managing and organizing models, and diverse programmatic options. This presents our communities with extraordinary challenges: the difficulty of managing in a culture of uncertainty, yet the opportunity to experiment with new organizing scenarios. But what seems evident, no one model of community development will work at this time for all federations.

Generational Wars: As suggested above, emergent generations of younger Jews do not hold the same loyalties and connections with our core institutions nor do they share the same vision for community. The impact of this population gap on the federation system can be seen as part of the “great divide” over communal priorities, institutional practice, and finding bridge-points that will move the millennial crowd closer to this enterprise.

R&D Matters: One of the outcomes of this the “new normal” is the realization that federations will require the input and resources from an engaged national system. The “research and development” function would appear all the more significant in this time of uncertainty and dramatic change. One of the particular commentaries one may offer is the absence today of a Jewish think tank designed to address the questions of how we might go about re-engineering our institutions and in designing alternative revenue models, as well as framing scenarios related to defining the Jewish future.[4]

With Whom Are You Having the Pleasure: Institutions at all levels are experimenting with new organizational partnerships as well as different models of communal organizing. Collaboration now is a mantra well accepted and necessary. In reality, fewer institutions in general will survive in these challenging economic times, and for federations who often have responsibility not only for their own fiduciary well-being but for the general health of a network of institutions, the partnership option now becomes a major focus of its operational mandate.

Just as federations have partnered with Birthright Israel, a “second revolution” institutional model, why not explore other alliances with some of the more than 250 other second revolution institutions, including AJWS (American Jewish World Service), JWW (Jewish World Watch), COEJL (The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life), etc….?

Jewish life is rich with institutional options and historical examples of collaborative arrangements. Engaging our Jewish centers of learning could represent such a model of partnership. Synagogues and other religious institutions, once seen as outside of the federation framework, ought to be invited into the conversation on re-engineering our communities.

Elsewhere I have written: “In the past highly successful movements had the luxury of ignoring their competitors or those who might challenge their position, yet most great movements have learned to build alliances, create partnerships and systematically enter into arrangements where allied or competitive groups were integrated or merged into their system.” Even beyond the circle of Jewish resources, federations may want to grow their business partnerships and to expand their ties with other nonprofit delivery and service organizations.

Leadership Legacy: One of the primary elements of great Jewish communities in history has been the quality of its leaders; their capacity to inspire, direct and engage our people in this sacred work represented a critical ingredient toward sustaining Jewish life. Just as UJA successfully created its National Young Leadership Cabinet some fifty years ago, so now a “leadership university” ought to be envisioned where prospective leaders, lay and professional, receive the type of preparation essential for the community development tasks.

In my earlier work on movements, the following commentary appeared: “Great movements are marked by the production of a new generation of leaders, who can not only fulfill the vision of their founders but build upon these initial dreams. To be successful movements require the continuous introduction of leaders who can bring inspiration and direction to the organizing process.”

Laboratory of Learning: In light of these changing conditions, our communities offer us an opportunity at this time to experiment with alternative models of organizing and managing the communal enterprise, new initiatives to reach and serve the next generations of Jews, and to build alternative delivery systems. Just as new ideas related to organizing and planning for this complex, changing environment will be required, the federations system should launch a Fund for Jewish Innovation, designed to seed, support, and study new models of community outreach and development.

Doing More with Less, or Less with Less: The future Jewish communal model will likely operate with fewer core resources. As a result a risk-tolerance environment will force organizations to consider bold initiatives, creating an era of experimentation and entrepreneurship.[5] Elsewhere I have written about successful Jewish communal organizations. In that context we explored a number of national agencies who have been able to sustain their core mission while experimenting with different models of institutional engagement.[6]

In my work on national movements and umbrella institutions, I noted these additional characteristics:

Honor the Movement’s History: Movements need to constantly invoke their core messages and historical achievements as a way to affirm their legitimacy and to demonstrate continuity. The federation system will need to celebrate its accomplishments and affirm its credibility as the centerpiece in promoting community creativity, institutional partnerships, and building a leadership base.

Reclaim the Street: Even during a “maintenance” phase of its existence, a movement needs to demonstrate that it can act. The primary injunction revolves around capacity and willingness to take action when the movement’s interests are seen to be in-play.

Celebrate Victories: The failure to acknowledge key successes denies the movement its credibility and weakens its claim to legitimacy.

Remember all Politics is Local: Movements are only as strong as their community-base, so concentrate resources and energy in strengthening the core. In a period in which citizenry has turned inward, focus on the health and vitality of the community by strengthening its infrastructure.

Setting a Pathway, Some Conclusions

In the context of an emerging 21st model, Jewish life will be governed and framed around several core principles:

  1. Old notions of institutional turf no longer apply; no one owns “the” Jewish response to our communal future.
  2. As a result of the rapidly changing picture of who American Jews are and what they represent, there will need to emerge within a different Jewish marketplace; such an environment must be seen as transparent and committed to experimentation and innovation.
  3. The competition for financial resources will require the community to revisit both its fundraising messages and its inventory of financial resource development tools.

Jack Wertheimer challenges us to think and to be governed by a different paradigm, when he writes:

“… we would do well to see it as an opportunity to ask ourselves some tough questions about the best ways to build Jewish social capital and draw in disengaged Jews – as a chance to converse about what we expect ourselves and our fellow Jews to contribute to Jewish life.”[7] Wertheimer is not alone in noting these “tough questions” as many others have been writing about the evolving demographic and social issues facing Jewish life. Some commentators note with proper concern a growing body of evidence of the decline of Jewish influence within this nation. “Jewish political influence presupposes a critical mass of Jews interested in leading a creative Jewish life. Fewer Jews concerned with Judaism means a weakened Jewish people.”[8]

Ron Wolfson, in his new book on Relational Judaism, defines our current challenge in the following terms:

“Jewish institutions must rethink their value proposition. …if our value proposition is the opportunity to be in face-to-face meaningful relationship with Jews and Judaism in a relational community that offers a path to meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing, we have a shot at engaging our people in a twenty-first century Relational Judaism.”[9]

“Community” must be understood as an organic structure, where the interplay among its core elements has profound implications for the overall welfare of the enterprise. The success of the American Jewish experience has been the ability of the community over its long tenure to rapidly and systematically adjust to both internal and external currents of opportunities and threats.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. See, thewindreport for a collection of his writings.

[1] rebirth/
[6] successful-jewish-organizational-models/
[7] Jack Wertheimer, “Time for Straight-Talk about Assimilation” Sept. 24th, 2009 eJewish Philanthropy.
[8] Steven Bayme, “American Jewry’s Future as Seen Fifty Years Ago and Now,” No. 49, 15th of October, 2009, Changing Jewish Communities, Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
[9] Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism, Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013, page 32