The Emerging Jewish Civic Culture

One of the core features of the new civic Jewish culture is the decline of a centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance, as the federated and religious systems have ceded power to newly-created boutique institutions and to community-based organizations.

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

The American Jewish community is experiencing the rise of a new communal culture that is transforming social behavior and institutional practice. Over the past several weeks, three studies were released, the first focusing on Jewish giving patterns and entitled “Connected to Give” (sponsored by Jumpstart); a second study on Jewish demography (Steinhardt Social Research Institute (SSRI) and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University); and the third dealing with Jewish identity and engagement (Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project). This collective body of research offers us insights into the changing civic culture of American Jews.

What then do we mean by “culture”? In this context, it represents “a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain group or nation.” In this brief article, we will be exploring some of the core elements that are contributing to the framing of this new Jewish cultural phenomenon. What are the particular factors driving this alternative cultural pathway? In part, these transformational behavioral elements are taking place as Jews enter the fourth and fifth generations of their American sojourn. It is occurring as younger Jews increasingly model the social mores of the mainline culture. These changes reflect the ripple-effects of the technology revolution that has fundamentally reshaped human communications and social networks. This new cultural model represents a by-play on the changing features of the economy, where the impact of the economic crisis of five years ago has left in its aftermath an array of structural dislocations leading to alternative models of community building and different forms of social behavior. Finally, the shift from the collective welfare of the community to a distinctive focus on the “sovereign self” may represent the central feature to this emerging new social order. As a result of these external pressures and internal changes, a different type of American Jew is emerging.

There are a number of distinctive attributes that define the new Jewish civic culture:

  1. The Decline of the Legacy System, the Emergence of Boutique Judaism
  2. A New Jewish Economy
  3. Shift from Centralized Governance to Localized Management
  4. The End of Ideology
  5. From Visionary Leadership to Institutional Maintenance
  6. Closures, Mergers, and Consolidation
  7. Culture of Experimentation
  8. Culture of “Free”: New Models of Affiliation and Engagement

The Decline of the Legacy System, the Emergence of Boutique Judaism: The Jewish community is moving from one cultural pattern of organizational expression to another. Two distinctive community models are currently in-play, as the legacy or traditional system, which was formed between 1880-1920, with its array of social, cultural, religious, and philanthropic activities, now appears to be in transition; in turn, the boutique community with its Gen X assortment of 21st century individualized instruments of organizing appears to be emerging as a prominent force. In my prior work I focused on the structural and organizational changes we have witnessed within Jewish communal and religious life between 1985-2005 (“Second American Jewish Revolution”), here attention is being directed to the operational and social patterns that are currently emerging within the community as part of this new civic expression. Increasingly, we see the growth of cross-breeding between these two community models, as the legacy sector seeks to acquire some of the creative features of these “Second Revolutionary” organizations. In turn, the boutique institutions, as they evolve, are being pressed to adopt some of the core infra-structural elements standard to the nonprofit enterprise.

A New Jewish Economy: This new communal civic culture portrays a distinctive set of economic characteristics:

  • Consumer Dominance: Where once institutions set the standard of practice, today individuals are driving the market. This phenomenon is fundamentally reshaping not only how the communal system operates but has impacted the Jewish “product” line of services and resources. The Jewish consumer is today shaping the communal marketplace, reflecting the general social environment.
  • Social Networking: Today, virtual communications has replaced traditional modes of engagement. The full impact of this technology revolution is altering not only individual behaviors but how institutions access and engage their constituencies.
  • Privatized Judaism: We are in the midst of a revolutionary transition as services, programs, and resources are being privatized. A growing portion of the Jewish enterprise will be provided not by communal institutions but through a privatized set of offerings. The “selling” of modern Judaism may represent the single most significant factor in shaping the new Jewish culture and its economy.
  • From One, Many: The Explosion in Choice: In many of the substantive areas of Jewish life, where we once experienced a narrow set of institutional options, today we are increasingly offered an array of organizational choices, available to us through new institutions and on-line services. In such arenas as Israel, arts and culture, social justice, and religious expression, the new Jewish culture must be seen as robust and diversified.
  • The Emergence of a Jewish Aristocratic Class: As a result of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding emergence of family and community foundations designed to manage these philanthropic resources, we are seeing a disproportionate amount of funding being generated from a relatively small donor base within the Jewish community. A new aristocratic class is increasingly identified with underwriting both the legacy system and the emerging boutique community. In many instances this cohort of funders is in one instance continuing to maintain traditional institutions as simultaneously this group is investing in a new generation of start-ups. The dramatic shift from “umbrella” funding to targeted giving has been the financial engine driving this new Jewish cultural paradigm.

Shift from Centralized Governance to Localized Management: One of the core features of the new civic Jewish culture is the decline of a centralized system of communal decision-making and shared governance, as the federated and religious systems have ceded power to newly-created boutique institutions and to community-based organizations. The consensus-based agenda that had promoted both domestic and foreign priorities within Jewish life has eroded; in its stead one finds a fundamental repositioning of social concerns. The resulting product of many of these structural and policy changes has been the evolution of a highly decentralized community model. Where once communal power and authority were concentrated in particular institutions, today such power is dispersed.

End of Ideology: If the last century was distinctively identified by a period of ideological engagement and marked by distinctive political and religious camps, then the current environment would suggest that such attachments to core beliefs is being set aside and in its place an age of pragmatic choice would seem to be dominant. Jews are now seen everywhere along the spectrum of social movements, giving up traditional labels and loyalties in favor of making independent and personal choices.

From Visionary Leadership to Institutional Maintenance: As with the demise of ideology, “leaders” have opted to reign in their institutional visioning in favor of organizational “maintenance.” Within this new cultural paradigm, there has been a major redefinition of institutional practice, where many organizations are trending toward an emphasis on donor services and personal selective engagement. In seeking to be “in relationship” with their key stakeholders, these organizations are at times sacrificing mission and vision as a means of preserving these core connections, fearful of losing their financial and membership base.

Closures, Mergers and Consolidations: Just as there has been significant expansion, there is a corollary response as witnessed by the closure of certain legacy organizations. As one of the primary outcomes of this cultural shift, we are experiencing a major recalibration of our institutional system as reflected by downsizing, mergers and in some instances the closing of organizations and synagogues. Similarly, within the communal network, national organizations, as exemplified by JESNA (Jewish Educational Services of North America) and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, cease operations, while other organizations move to reposition themselves against the onslaught of membership losses and financial challenges. We are witnessing a corollary change with umbrella systems and national religious structures, who are redistributing functions and responsibilities, shifting certain core tasks to their local constituencies or disbanding specific services.

Culture of Experimentation: In light of the significant demographic, social and cultural changes underway within the community, as documented in the three new studies referenced above, institutions have redirected their resources seeking to capture “the new and innovative” as a way to maintain members, attract donors, and build their market share. This focus on experimentation represents a significant cultural shift, where organizational priorities are now centered on three core elements: survival and sustainability (institutional maintenance), generational exposure (marketing to a specific constituency and social style), and social appeal (mimicking trends).

Culture of Free: New Models of Affiliation and Engagement: As membership rosters decline and donor participation diminishes, in connection with an evolving new environment that seeks to promote a “culture of free”, a particular focus on the part of some institutions is being placed on sustaining the three core elements: “membership”, “affiliation”, and “community”. In seeking to replace the traditional norms of associational participation, we can identify several innovative patterns of engagement, where institutions are marketing their services in fundamentally different ways. In some settings there has been a shift from formal affiliation or membership to “fee-for-service” arrangements; prospective participants are invited to select a “payment plan” that meets their budgetary and ideological comfort level; communities are bundling “membership packages” allowing families and singles to “buy” through a single purchase arrangement access to several institutions; and major donor subsidies are currently underwriting particular programs and/or memberships for new participants in some communities. A part of this focus on “free” represents a counter-cultural response to the high cost of Jewish living that defined the legacy model.

Closing Thoughts:

In the end we are witnessing in fact the emergence of multiple Jewish communities or pods that reflect the diversity of options that define this economy and culture, built around the value of choice and the primacy of the individual. These new modes of communal culture would suggest the presence of a highly diverse community marketplace. Yet, within this diversity, an extraordinary degree of energy seems present, allowing for a creative explosion of Jewish messages, programs, resources and services.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. You can find more of his writings at www.thewindreport.