By Marylin E. Kingston, Ph.D.
and Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
In attending community gatherings, including such activities as lectures, rallies, films, fund raising events and community dinners, we seem to see the “same folks” everywhere. Why is that the case?
This assertion led us to explore group behavior patterns. Indeed, almost every study concerning how groups function, be they involving individual organizational behavior or larger social movements, social psychologists remind us that there are a series of concentric circles that define human performance and participation:
The outer layers of a membership group display minimal engagement with the events or activities of such institutions; for that matter, these individuals exhibit a behavior that social scientists reference as peripheral members (minimal engagement), marginally connected or engaged with the cause.
The next inner circle represents individuals who are sporadic in their involvement and support, so these participants only involve themselves on selective occasions. That leaves us with two inside circles. The larger of the two, at times identified as “joiners” exhibit a substantial degree of connection with the community or membership organization. Their performance is more regularized but here again it tends to be highly inconsistent. The inner circle identified as community “activists” are generally present at everything. Accounting for no more than 10% of the “membership base,” this is the crowd that one regularly sees at most of the community and/or organizational programs.
What is distinctive about “activists”? They share noteworthy personality traits.
They are joiners, holding affiliation with several organizations. This would explain why one would find them at so many different community activities. They represent a specific cohort, normally between the ages of 60-80. Sociologists remind us that this generational configuration grew up in a civic culture of communalism, where people supported and attended a wide array of community events and social causes.
This age grouping shares a set of social practices. They tend to reflect liberal values, a common belief and concern for the welfare of the Jewish community and the public square and have similar philanthropic priorities. What is also of interest, even though many of these “attendees” belong to different synagogues or civic organizations, they are bound together by a set of common friendships and the continuous cycle of “showing up” brings them regularly in touch with one another. In some instances, deep friendships have formed amongst these institutional regulars. But even if they are not necessarily friends, the consistency of their being present allows them the opportunity to build a connection with their fellow activists. They have come to count on their fellow activists to be present at these key community and civic moments. In fact, they voice concern when someone does not show up.
Organizational psychologists believe that these patterns of engagement with social service, religious and political organizations are linked to a set of civic expectations that were prominent in the mid-decades of the last century, where being a part of the social structures of a community was highly valued and fostered. Along with voting, membership in these mainstream institutions were encouraged and celebrated as part of the public norm.
While it remains difficult, if not impossible, to predict communal affiliation and membership patterns, at least now there is nothing to suggest that we are likely to replace these baby boomer/mature “activists.” So, what will happen when this age cohort dies off? Will there be a built-in constituency of players to fill our boardrooms, auditoriums and theatres? Even as other Jews may continue to give to specific causes, those filling our seats may not be replaced. Social psychologists are not reporting on a new wave of attendees, quite the reverse, they are generally forecasting a downward pattern of participation in church, synagogue or community-based activities. Are we witnessing the end of communal engagement?
While younger Jews may not be interested in affiliating or supporting their parents and grandparent’s institutions, they share a commitment to several of the same or similar social values. Social media represents the connecting framework that binds many Millennials and Gen Z participants. Rather than joining legacy institutions and synagogues, younger American Jews are expressing their religious, cultural and political interests through start-up or boutique organizations and on-line causes. These trends within the Jewish community are reflected as well within the general society, especially among comparative economic and social groupings. Affiliation with churches and civic organizations model these same patterns.
As there have been waves of heightened affiliation and activism within American history, it is possible that we will see at some point in this century a return to institutional engagement. We are reminded, for instance, that following the Civil War, church (synagogue) affiliation expanded, leading to the birth of new religious institutions during that period. During this same timeframe, civic organizations reported a flood of new members.
Today, we are witnessing accelerating and exponential change in all areas of civic life. Faith-based communities are exposed to the same dynamic forces that have disrupted and transformed the structure and operations of most industries and many other institutions. The new Jewish paradigm is one of instability and disequilibrium without a clear endpoint in sight. Organizing today takes place from the bottom up, in contrast to an earlier period in this nation where organizations operated from a top-down framework of securing membership and creating regional and local chapters or synagogue-affiliates. The idea of “belonging” is self-defined, as individuals today are making choices about their connections with the larger society. The “sovereign self” has replaced the collective obligation to be a part of a communal order.
“Community” will most likely take on different definitions and expectations as our society moves away from some of the traditional mores and practices in connection with institutional participation. At least in the near term, other forms of social engagement will replace the idea of affiliation and the role of membership.
Marylin E. Kingston Ph.D. is an organizational psychology consultant practicing in California. Professor Steven Windmueller Ph.D. 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.