By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
We are living in a transformative moment. This transition is less about the pandemic and more about the outcomes that we are preparing to experience. For certain, the economic picture is unclear, just as the political environment remains unsettled.
“The impact of COVID-19 on life around the globe is extraordinary, and nonprofits are no exception to the disruption.”
What will this mean for our society, our economy and our Jewish community? In this moment we are facing a set of unknown and complex challenges that will fundamentally redefine our institutions and recalibrate our community as we move forward.
“Broken” here, references a fundamentally different fix than merely a vaccine or a make-over. We are reminded that the American Jewish communal story is a unique experiment, different from all other experiences that have shaped our people’s global journey.
As I have noted on this site and elsewhere, American Jewry has undergone a series of “revolutions” covering this past century and a half. In order to understand what this uncertain moment may mean in the context of the Jewish communal story, it may be useful to review these earlier episodic developments:
- The “First American Jewish Revolution” (1880-1920) framed the legacy and denominational religious and communal system. This communal model successfully dominated the American Jewish scene until 1985.
- The “Second American Jewish Revolution” (1985-2005) launched the hundreds of boutique organizations that today dot the communal landscape and offer us an assortment of case examples of success, as they compete for their public Jewish space.
- A third iteration begins to take form in the aftermath of the 2008 “Great Recession” as we would see the conflation of economics, demography, generational distinctiveness and the impact of technology reshaping the communal order. This storyline is still unfolding even during this pandemic.
We know that most institutional change occurs in response to the tastes and trends of the marketplace. Rather than being proactive in anticipating these new outcomes, our American Jewish historical practice has been reactive, spontaneous and inconsistent. But in this setting, external forces will be redefining the American nonprofit network and directly impacting our lives and institutions.
At one moment, we are suddenly living through four simultaneous challenges to our lives, institutions, and the communal order:
- Economic Uncertainties
- Cultural Wars
- Medical/Pandemic Impact
- Political Divisions and Upheavals
Each of these external forces will be contributing to a structural realignment within the Jewish eco-system. These mega-issues are coming face to face with the internal scenarios we identified already in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. At that time, the impact of generational and demographical changes, operational/technological challenges, and the new economic realities began to influence and shape the Jewish communal world. The results from that experience remain with us: declining memberships, the expanding roles of foundations, the downsizing and consolidating of institutional systems and the growing recognition of distinctive generational affiliation patterns.
Stepping into our Present Lens:
This pandemic frames the contemporary moment. In all other parts of our lives we are operating through this new modality. The emerging social frame is both challenging and unchartered! The economic picture is at best unsettled; the political order is frayed; and the medical challenges remain unresolved. In some measure, we are presented with a set of stark but essential realities about the character and content of our social condition.
In confronting these stark realities, we will need to realistically ask, will our organizations survive this moment? This striking redefinition of the organizational future suggests that where we are, is not where we will be in the aftermath of this experience. Indeed, nonprofits, in general, and our communal system, in particular, are facing an array of structural and fiscal challenges. Events and time will be taking their toll on the American Jewish communal system.
We should recall that the systems we designed operate best in settings of equilibrium and prosperity, where the social order is preserved, and where there exist marketplaces of choice. Institutional systems are responsive to the cultural settings in which they are framed and managed. What has fundamentally changed about our condition is that the social fabric of this society is being tested, even altered. We are facing a new normal.
The elements that define our existing system incorporate these four operational principles:
- We should remind ourselves that the Jewish communal order incorporated five essential spheres of activity: religious, educational and cultural, social service, Israel and international, and security/community relations.
- In the past we divided and managed these disciplines, both structurally and philanthropically independent of one another.
- We governed employing a federal-type framework, involving the distribution of roles, the cataloging of assignments, and the separation of resources based on a church & state model, while employing a checks & balances economy.
- We established distinctive role differentiations for our leaders: “rabbi”, “educator”, “communal professional” as examples. With intension, we operated in a bifurcated setting.
Moving Forward: Framing the Questions
As we consider the future and the changing realities before us, will we move from inside out or from the outside in? In the latter scenario by definition we will be constructing a new communal/national framework, a revolution that reflects the changing social order. The former references an internal adjustment to the status quo , as we symbolically enact change.
For a revolution to take place, these are the types of questions that will be placed before us:
- Which of our organizations and communal structures are expendable?
- What can we as a community afford to maintain and what do we require that is essential to sustain?
The new paradigm begins with these overriding considerations:
- How will we define ourselves?
- What is it that we will represent and who are we prepared to serve?
- How do we seek to define ourselves within our community and within the world?
The eco-system of the future will encompass institutions reflective and sustained by these five attributes: efficiency-effectiveness-energy-engagement-excellence.
Let’s begin with four governing assessments:
Our communal order and religious culture were built on Jewish values and American principles of governance. While our programmatic focus and institutional alignments will likely change, the vision of what a community can and should represent remain fixed.
“Buildings do not define our community” so we will need to begin to realize that we can shed many of our physical plants. Shifting the costs of operating facilities to maintaining and growing programs and meeting human needs are core structural outcomes. Indeed, there are cultural, emotional and historic connections to these physical expressions of community but that is not the central tenet or definition of who we are or will become!
“Our donors are essential to our community.” But is this the moment to re-channel their thinking about what constitutes our collective priorities and interests? We have an obligation to meet basic needs central to our values, and as our partners, givers can help us chart the new essentials.
“Sexism and racism have no play in our communal story.” This then becomes a moment to ensure that women are accorded equal access and recognition in achieving leadership positions at comparable pay, with complementary status. We need to welcome and embrace Jews of color, Jews of differing sexual orientation, and Jews by choice, so that all may fully participate in the contemporary communal scene.
The process of change in such a chaotic moment will by necessity be uneven, messy and disjointed. With the likelihood of operating with limited resources, a changing leadership platform, and a differing set of expectations and social-economic needs, how shall we govern ourselves?
In the context of our religious construct, we will need to ask the following:
- Do we require multiple national liberal denominational structures, seminaries, and rabbinic associations?
- How do we understand the role and purpose of a 21st Century synagogue?
On the communal side, we should consider:
- Can we operate with one national community relations agency? Is it time to merge the ADL and the American Jewish Committee?
- Is it possible to create one national umbrella system that aligns our federations and JCRCs and social service agencies together, i.e. JFNA, JCPA, JCCA, Foundation for Jewish Camp, etc. among other support networks?
- Can we rethink a Kehillah model that incorporates the full array of religious, cultural and social service resources of the community?
Our communal order consists of a multiplicity of organizations that once served distinctive and essential roles in our community model but today can be seen as part of our legacy inheritance:
- Is this the moment in time to merge various membership constituency organizations?
- Do we require multiple national youth movements, separate camping systems, and distinctive educational endeavors?
- Should we re-envision our American-based Israel philanthropic, educational and cultural organizations?
All of these considerations posted above suggest a common or shared agenda. Yet, we know that diversity, division, and disagreement define the current communal scene. We need to acknowledge that the discipline that at one time defined communal practice has receded. We must also consider that consensus which shaped much of the 20th Century Jewish agenda has evaporated.
Over the past several decades, a silo mentality has defined the Jewish landscape. We could afford these varieties of institutional expressions. As long as our economy supported multiple memberships, philanthropic options, and institutional choice, we could endure this array of organizational options. But that may no longer be the case. Over the years ahead, we can expect to be living with a different type of communal order.
The marketplace dictates outcomes! A new economic order is evolving, suggesting, at least in the near term, our community will be operating with fewer resources, experiencing the narrowing of choices, and facing increased leadership challenges while seeking to manage in a destabilized political and social environment.
The Ten Value Propositions:
Even as we struggle to come to this new structural reality. We can revisit our core value propositions that undergird and give expression to our communal system:
- Our Values are Eternal, Our Institutions are Transitory. We are framing a new moment in time and with it will come different institutional expressions and alternative patterns of organizing. Revolutions are messy, uncertain, and disruptive.
- Society Defines Community. Our communal systems are a reflection of our larger social order. “Denominationalism” and “membership” as examples were structural artifacts of an earlier timeframe. As cultural themes, generational behaviors, and social norms shifted, it would become essential for our institutions to likewise pivot. Often organizations did not move or adjust with these changing patterns, and that is where we are now!
- Vision as a Moveable Feast. Our institutional visions change over time in connection with evolving economic circumstance, changing culture realities, and shifting social forces. Historical ideas and operational pathways remain as significant guideposts. Historical or legacy agencies may come and go! We honor their accomplishments and what they may have represented but we not sold on structures or committed to the continuity of organizations.
- Needs Change. We understand that institutions are created to meet core needs, but are the requirements of our community the same at this point in time? We should remind ourselves that many of our legacy institutions were designed to transform an immigrant community of the 19th Century into 20th Century “Americans.” Those denominational, membership and giving models served us well during an earlier iteration of our community-building. Organizations must be understood as structural conduits established to carry out programs and services through a particular vision of communalism and Judaism, and so we must treat them as the functional means toward achieving particular outcomes.
- People Change. Generations reflect different inherent interests, portray life-style choices, and take on cultural tastes. Who we were as a 20th Century Jewish constituency will not be how we will perform and behave in a 21st Century environment.
- The Marketplace is Fluid. Human behavior reminds us that tastes and choices change, as the market serves as a reflection of the existing norms and social behaviors of its users. Institutions designed for a particular moment in time may not serve the tastes or needs of a changing economy.
- All Leadership is not all the Same! How will we understand leadership in the aftermath of this moment? What types of leaders will we require in this post-pandemic period in contrast with earlier leadership models? This is a fundamentally different experience that requires alternative skills in leading and serving the communal enterprise. How we envision 21st Century Judaism sets us on a different pathway than the earlier models of community development.
- Resources are Finite. They are negotiable and moveable.
- Numbers Matter. Demographically, the Jewish community is undergoing significant transitions, as we age and as our core population base changes. Community requires a significant number of constituents in order to thrive and prosper. The equation of numbers is now becoming unbalanced through assimilation, aging, and atrophy.
- Collaboration as a Model for Community Building. In this new construct, we are discovering that increased cross-institutional and cross-cultural learning is an essential outcome for the 21st Century.
Defining the Challenge:
The communal enterprise is about to radically change. Will we be able to drive the necessary changes, or will the marketplace dictate unwanted outcomes? Will we have capacity to ask the difficult but essential questions that will shape our uncertain future?
This is a critical moment in our American Jewish encounter. We will be tested as never before as we launch this Jewish revolutionary moment in recalibrating the communal story.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.