Sustaining 21st Century American Judaism: Examining New Options

by Steven Windmueller

Based on current research related to the status of religious movements, it is important to begin to design strategies for synagogue organizations, and their affiliates to move toward “sacred innovation,” the idea of re-imagining congregational life. These initiatives come up against the new realities of the decline in American religiosity.

The specific indicators of decline, taken from General Social Survey data, include[1]:

  • From 1990 to 2008, the percent of people who never attend religious services rose from 13 percent to 22 percent.
  • Just 45 percent of adult respondents born after 1970 reported growing up with religiously active fathers.
  • In the 1960s, about 1 percent of college freshmen expected to become clergy. Now, about three-tenths of a percent have the same expectation.
  • The percentage of people saying they have a great deal of confidence in leaders of religious institutions has declined from about 35 percent in the 1970s to about 25 percent today.

Three recent publications, Sid Schwartz’s Finding a Spiritual Home, Hayim Herring’s Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, and Ron Wolfson in his forthcoming book on Relational Judaism each offer commentaries on the innovative voices and visions that are emerging with American Judaism and on the elements essential for sustaining congregational life.

In today’s environment one can identify a number of operational roadblocks facing our established national religious movements and their affiliates. Moving beyond my earlier work, I have identified four specific issues that will need to be addressed:

  1. Encountering Decision-Making Malaise
  2. Defining the Competitive Edge: Marketing Mission and Building Brand
  3. Focusing on Leadership Capacity
  4. Identifying Alternative Revenue Streams

Results Count (Decision-Making)! In such a complex and uncertain environment, institutional leaders report how difficult it is to make decisions and how often they feel vulnerable even around the choices they have made. Often, there is fear that actions taken will alienate particular constituencies or marginalize others.

In this context, the decision-making process within the world of the American synagogue must take into account three measures:

  1. Is it in keeping with Jewish values and the historical tradition of the movement?
  2. Does it inspire and engage individuals and/or key constituencies?
  3. Will it further the mission and vision of the organization?

Primary decisions in this current environment will force institutions to make critical choices around what leadership believes to be essential. In distinction to prior time frames, consensus is at best difficult to achieve and may in fact further weaken the religious enterprise.

We’re Number One (Competitive Edge)! In this survivalist condition, organizations are constantly seeking the “competitive edge,” acknowledging that at times they are overwhelmed by the financial, programmatic, and structural challenges. In today’s market the focus ought to be on “impact” rather than “image”. The shift here allows synagogues to understand the marketplace as diverse and specialized. Finding a niche becomes a critical component in defining the contemporary religious service provider.

The attention being given to mission and vision has become another of the mantras requiring self-realization. What role does mission play? The intention here is to ensure that congregations and movements are committed to their claims. Is practice aligned with principal?

So, how important are vision statements and the corollary public messages of movements and congregations? They are only significant in the context of how they are employed. Are congregations able to act on these platforms, if not spending time and energy on strategic planning is not only wasteful but frustrating.

Who’s on the Bus (Leadership Capacity)? Paraphrasing Jim Collins, “Who ought to be on the bus and what seats should they occupy?” If synagogues and other religious bodies are to be ahead of the curve and able to offset the threats that they face in the marketplace, they will need to position and prepare their leadership for the challenging issues before us. Lay leaders must understand institutional process and tolerate organizational politics as well as have an abiding appreciation for the congregation’s mission and history. Such key decision-makers must understand the value and significance of effectively managing the partnership with their professionals. Correspondingly, our synagogue professionals must be prepared to embrace their lay leaders, demonstrating a level of understanding and respect for institutional process, financial resource development, and organizational dynamics.

Money-Money-Money (Financial Resources): In many instances congregations report that “if only” they had the resources…. In this economy and in the context of the new demographic realities, the competitive challenges, and an uncertain economy it is essential for the religious sector to experiment in creating new income streams.

Implications for Traditional Institutional Models:

How might traditional organizations apply and/or adopt some of the organizing principles of emergent religious groups?

In my earlier work on religious movements I focused a ten-point plan for institutional action, centering on leadership development, institutional sustainability, building a virtual presence, reaffirming the movement’s historical achievements and core messages, and developing strategies to reclaim the public square, namely to be seen as primary political actors around vital policy concerns. Another element reflected in my work paid specific attention to “concentrating resources and energy in strengthening the institutional core.”

Over the past several years I have had occasion to work with synagogue boards, rabbis and administrators in examining different aspects of the congregational enterprise.

In confronting today’s complex realities, movements and their congregational affiliates will need to pay specific attention to:

  • Establishing Institutional Identity: Focusing on target audiences and defined services, reminding ourselves that not all of our congregations can serve all constituencies.
  • Managing Partnerships and Collaborative Arrangements: religious institutions need partners and must promote a culture of shared engagement. Religious movements are amongst the least open to building new organizational arrangements. Where mergers and acquisitions are common in the general economy, this practice remains outside of the culture for most American religious systems.
  • Operating from the Outside-In: The challenges facing synagogues are not dissimilar to the world of America’s churches. Here we will find an array of insights into organizing, managing, and promoting our message and mission. Beyond American religion there is a vast knowledge base to be garnered from the operational practices of corporations and the non profit sector in serving constituents. Drawing upon “outside” experience and adapting it to religious systems represents a business strategy that ought to be seen of value.

Understanding the New Models of Religious Engagement:

Religious movements and their congregational groupings might want to closely examine the organizational and operational patterns of “emergent” or alternative religious communities. While not all of their organizing practices are necessarily useful to the contemporary synagogue, their achievements maybe instructive.

A key consideration for these newly-established worship centers involves the elements of “space and place”. Emergent communities are not singularly dependent on a particular site or permanent location in which to operate, as many of these new models might be best defined as “moveable feasts.” Indeed, among some traditional congregations, there is a growing commitment to exploring opportunities to experiment with alternative locations, just as they are engaging in new forms of experimentation with religious practices, as a way of reaching and serving new constituencies.

Cross-breeding seems to be one of the core characteristics of these new religious models. This is best expressed in their willingness to introduce alternative organizing and programming schemes as a way both to test the marketplace and to reshape and present their “product”.

Another basic element involves entrepreneurship, a characteristic that seems significant in understanding these new institutional practices. Risk-tolerance represents a key value found in the non-traditional religious marketplace, where groups are willing to test a variety of approaches with the notion that failure is both expected and celebrated.

New community and religious models tend to operate with underdeveloped infra-structures. Yet, many of these emerging structures have very defined goals and organizational objectives. In some instances, these new initiatives are short-lived or in turn, face serious financial challenges.

The creation of these new institutional models is often built around a passion-driven vision.

A number of these new institutional structures operate around single-issue themes. Many of these new organizational initiatives exhibit a high degree of communalism, where “small” is seen as essential value.

Meeting the expectations of the prospective member, seeker, or client in these new types of institutions is understood to be a core organizing premise.

Unlike more traditional entities, newer organizational models tend not to measure participation on the basis of formal membership or financial engagement but rather have created other types of participatory options, including such measures as volunteering and in-kind contributions.

Similarly, the idea of one person at a time represents a central organizing theme for many of these newer community structures. Building connections among participants is a central concept present and prevalent among these emerging groups.

Often one person or a small cadre of individuals is identified with the evolution of these new enterprises. Leadership tends to be highly directive and in some settings entrepreneurial. There is also some evidence in particular settings of the presence of a cult of personality environment, where the founding leader represents the focal point around which the organization or religious group is defined.

As with elements of emergent Christianity, Jewish “emergent” groups are designed to be responsive both in style and substance to the particular needs and social values of Generation Y’s and X’ers.

Experimentation reflects one of the primary and unique characteristics of emerging institutional models.

Some institutions thrive in crisis settings; others are simply paralyzed in that type of environment. Traditional institutions are generally more equipped to manage crisis situations. Similarly, older generations of civic activists tend to be more attuned to be specifically responsive to crisis-based organizing.

Early victories are critical to the success of these types of structures and the celebration of these victories is a significant part of their institutional culture. These groups tend to parley their small wins into often high profile gains.

Many of these newly-formed groups seek to serve specific types of constituencies and direct their marketing to these target audiences.

Coalitions and collaborative relationships define these emerging groups, often in contrast to traditional organizations that operate much more in a territorial environment.


In a time of major institutional transformation, the world of the American synagogue and their major umbrella systems will need to reassess the operational concepts that drive their enterprise. Reaching Jews and impacting the lives of Jews will require a different construct.


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College. He teaches on the Los Angeles campus of the College-Institute. You can find more on his writings and research on his website, The Wind Report.