The American Jewish Community’s Next Stage

The American Jewish Community’s Next Stage: Reiteration, Radical Reorientation, or Re-imagination?

by Rabbi Hayim Herring


Until the Enlightenment, Jewish communities throughout the world were united by a meta-narrative. In a word, it might be called Redemption. The broken state of the Jewish people and the world would be repaired. The Jewish people would return to the land of Israel where Torah could be fully lived and all humanity would experience the realized promises of the messianic age. While Jewish communities were heterogeneous, a single grand vision animated and connected them.

Post enlightenment, and continuing to this day, no single narrative is able to provide this kind of cohesion. Instead, we are left with strands from an unraveled narrative, which include history, language, culture, land, peoplehood, religious values, beliefs and practice, tikkun olam, etc. If we diagramed how the Jewish community appears today, we would look like a cobbled-together network, with no network administrator. Some nodes would have multiple connections criss-crossing others, while other nodes would have none or few. As a consequence, each community has evolved its own organizational structure which embodies its particular meaning. As belief systems often overlap, the result is the correctly-noted complaint about a redundancy of Jewish organizations.

The Next Iteration or a Turning Point?

The American Jewish community is at turning point. Even before the economic crisis, five significant transitions have changed the meanings that individuals ascribe to being part of a community and the structures of those communities. We have shifted from an age of national organizations to local organizations, institutions to networks, elite control to democratic rule, monopoly of specialization to democracy of generalized knowledge, exclusivity to inclusivity. In this post-Madoff world of diminished financial resources, these transitions have only further accelerated the dissolution and reconfiguration of “the Jewish community” in its varied iterations. Ideology of any kind is losing its toehold, dislodged by the never-ending quest for customized meaning.

Given these trends and some unprecedented challenges in the current environment, we agree with all those who claim that the infrastructure that has mushroomed around our “community of communities” is not sustainable. We can reflexively default into trying to create a downsized, impoverished version of what we have had, or we can pause, reflect and attempt to help reshape the kind of community which enlivens Jewish meaning, builds Jewish communities and contributes positive visions of the future to the broader world.

Especially in a moment of crisis, we do not want to make assumptions about what will best benefit the Jewish community in the long-term. Generalized anxiety fosters short-term, limited thinking. Perhaps a reiteration of “Jewish community,” with less-of-the-same, but with clearer focus, is sufficient to propel us into a meaning-saturated future; or, we may need a radical reorientation in our understanding of what it means to be Jewish today – or some re-imagination of the Jewish future which may or may not include either of these options. The remainder of this paper will briefly examine these three paths.

The Communal Reiteration Option: Same Set of Meanings but More Focused and with Fewer Resources

The current conversations about Jewish meaning center around a range of familiar themes including identity, engagement, continuity, peoplehood, Israel, GLBTIQ Judaism, environmental stewardship, heritage, memory, literacy, covenant, spirituality, community, chosenness, culture, feminism, tikkun olam. These conversations reflect both pride and anxiety about the Jewish future – pride in that there is something vital and unique that must continue to exist and anxiety about how to sustain what exists at the highest quality.

What unites these conversations is some bounded notion of what it means to be Jewish. Whatever the ascribed meanings of Jewishness, they require a critical mass of individuals – a concentrated community – through which they can pursue an agenda. These communities may be more or less inclusive, but at some point, there are boundaries demarcating an inside and an outside of community. Nonetheless, people involved in discussions around these themes frequently feel mandated to actively involve themselves in the broader community and in global concerns.

A reiteration option would mean maintenance of these communities of meaning, but a contraction of communal structures to support them. This contraction would take the form of mergers, acquisitions and closures. Simultaneously, issues of quality could be addressed through organizational partnerships, strategic alliances and collaboration.

The Radical Reorientation Option: Personalist and Global

There is another conversation emerging that might be described as a personalist, global conversation. This conversation has two foci: the self and the world. The self finds personal meaning through involvement in pursuits which have the broad goal of improving the human condition. To the extent that the Jewish experience is one methodology of deepening personal meaning and contributing to a global vision of enhanced humanity, it has merit and can be utilized. But it is clearly only one methodology that Jews and non-Jews can access, just as Jews can access other methodologies to increase their own personal life meaning and the lives of the fellow human beings, wherever they reside. Jewish civilization possesses wisdom, beauty and experience but that makes it no more or less valuable than other civilizations and religions.

Particular covenants are considered risky because they can become tribal and chauvinistic, so no automatic pride or privilege inheres in any form of Jewish community. In fact, an over-emphasis on Jewish community and its structures is a part of the problem, not the solution. No matter how inclusive, communal structures by definition place barriers between Jews and others and are inimical to the belief in a greater human oneness. So what is the purpose of Jewish community and its organizations? The purpose of Jewish community is to disclose and generate insights that unite humanity in pursuit of its highest aspirations. Communal organizations are significant if they multiply entry points for individual engagement with Jewish wisdom which also enhances the world.

The implications of this kind of conversation are stunning. They suggest little or no need for so many of the issues which consume a significant share of current resources: intermarriage, Israel-Diaspora relations, anti-Semitism, etc. This radical reorientation suggests that we are or ought to be moving toward a post-communal world in which institutions serve an individual agenda.

A Re-imagination Option

We struggle to even name what any additional options suited to new realities might look like. As we stated initially, assuming that the Jewish enterprise has not run its course, we imagine that participation in Jewish communities will also serve as a springboard for becoming involved in global concerns. Simultaneously, involvement in broader concerns will enrich the content and structure of Jewish communities. So a sense of boundedness between “Jewish community” and the rest of the world will remain, but it might more closely resemble a permeable membrane than a rigid cell wall.

In this re-imagination option, a diversity of communities will continue to constitute what we collectively call “the Jewish community,” although the barriers that separate them from one another will have been lowered or eliminated. Individuals will gravitate toward communities based on the power of their ideas and the experiences that they provide and not their organizational label. Nurturing communities of significant meaning will necessitate structural changes. In cases where multiple communities share an agenda, the one or two that are able to present the most compelling experiences will survive, while the others will go out of business. We will still likely be a “community of communities,” defined by compelling mini-narratives but perhaps united by an over-arching agenda of attention to our role as global citizens. Structurally, we will be characterized by fewer organizations but more organic networks of leaders who work together to maximize the number of entry points into Jewish life and enable participation as responsible global citizens who seek to improve the human condition.

In this scenario, policy implications are to help foster conditions that reduce competition across communities, multiply the number of entry points into communities and expand the notion of Jewish community so that it is nested in the concept of global citizenship.


The 1990 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) released a statistic that was heard around the Jewish world: a 52% intermarriage rate. That single statistic generated tremendous anxiety but no coherent vision (or, more accurately) visions of a positive Jewish future. We have offered three possible scenarios about the Jewish future. Given the litany of challenges that the Jewish community now confronts, we do not want to base critical decisions which will affect the shape of the Jewish community for many decades on anxiety or fear. The necessity of down-sizing our institutions can serve as a stimulus for up-sizing our imaginations. We can – we must – fruitfully draw upon the theological and historical pasts and envision a thriving Jewish future. After all, we have done so many times before.

© 2010 Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

Rabbi Herring is President and C.E.O. of the Herring Consulting Network, which “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations”™