The World of the Synagogue and the Second American Jewish Revolution: Some Reflections

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

A global revolution is underway. It is most directly manifested in the marketplace and through the communications and technological revolution. These external forces have profoundly changed the nature of work, access to financial resources, how people live, and what are the core values around which they build their lives.

The impact of these global and economic changes is also transforming communities and nonprofit institutions, including the world of the synagogue. These changes within Jewish life involve the emergence of new institutional models of religious and communal life, designed to offer meaning and access to a new generation of seekers and activists.

Impact of Globalism: How do we engage and live in an interconnected world? In turn, how we govern ourselves and manage our political, economic and social relationships will define the “state” of world environment. What role(s) does religion play in the global enterprise?

The New Thresholds of Science and Technology: As science, medicine, and technology reshape how we live and operate within the world, new ethical complexities are emerging that will challenge us about the meaning of life and the nature of humankind. The Changing Notions of Work: Many of us define our identity around our professional and business roles, yet the nature of the work environment is radically and rapidly changing. What will the transitions and definitions of “work” mean for defining our society and promoting human dignity in this century?

Confronting Transitions: The United States’ role in the world is undergoing a significant transition. This has profound implications for this country’s citizens as they seek to reclaim a sense of national identity and purpose.

As identified below, we can organize the core change factors around four units: SocialEconomicPoliticalStructural.

Social Economic
1. Social Networking
2. Generational Patterns of Affiliation and Participation.
3. Changing Nature and Definition of “Community”.
4. “Angry” Constituencies
5. Largest Migrations in Human History.
6. Artificial and Human Intelligence.
7. Aging Populations of the Developed Economies.
1. The Rise of Globalism and the Market Place
2. Technology and Communications Revolution (we will double our technological knowledge every ten years)
3. The Notion of Work
4. Branding and Marketing: Niche- Focused
5. Wealth Accumulation and Distribution
6. Consumerism: Culture of Free
Political Structural
1. Absence of a Shared and Coherent Agenda
2. Distrust of Leaders and the Absence of Leadership
3. Decline of Civility
4. Governance Crisis: Creating and Managing Effective Solutions and Outcomes in an Age of Complexity
5. Rise of Single-Issue Constituencies
1. Decline of Institutional Affiliation
2. Localism over National Connection
3. Experimentation: the Emergence of New Forms of Community and Alternative Models of Participation
4. Life Expectancies of Institutions: Mergers-Reinvention-Demise
5. Changing Nature and Definition of Membership

Internal to the Jewish community, we are at a moment in time as well where four historical “passings” will have the effect of reshaping our contemporary story:

  • The last survivors of the Shoah are now leaving their stories and eyewitness accounts behind. The Holocaust will move from a contemporary story to a time in history.
  • We are witnessing the end of the “founding generation” of those who helped establish and build the State of Israel.
  • Our “greatest generation” of American Jewish leaders and Second World War veterans, those men and women who led, shaped, and supported our institutions over the course of the past five decades, are now passing from the scene.
  • As our “Baby Boomer” generation transitions out of power, we will witness the largest and most significant generational leadership shift in American Jewish life.

In this new century, we will operate differently than the Jewish community of the second half of the 20th century, as cultural blending and social diversity will reshape who will constitute our congregational members and core constituencies.

  • We are not one community but rather a multiple set of communities, operating without a shared or common agenda. This new reality can and ought to be seen as an exciting and challenging opportunity.
  • There is no common narrative that defines this moment in Jewish history. Our task, and those that follow us, will be to construct new narratives about the emerging Jewish experience.
  • Jewish “exceptionalism” and distinctiveness would seem to be on the decline, and in its place we will need to consider new ways of telling and marketing a distinctive 21st century Jewish story.
  • The new demographic realities would suggest that we will be a smaller percentage of the overall population (numbers); that we will look and behave differently, reflecting our cultural and social diversity. We are a composite of Jews by choice, Jews of color, and Jews with different sexual orientations.
  • Post-modernists ask: “What are the compelling reasons to be Jewish?” Where our parents’ and grandparents’ generations created distinctive silos for expressing their Jewish commitment. In turn, the emerging generations neatly bind together their multiple identities, moving at times comfortably and seamlessly among their various interests and passions, often aligning together their political and cultural values with their Jewish practice to create new forms of social networks and religious expression.

Building a Game Plan for the Jewish Future
Five principles ought to drive our agenda:

  1. A culture of inquiry and experimentation will define how we see and embrace the future. A good deal of the new environment will require us to embrace innovation, by learning to live with failure and in turn, to understand success in new and even unconventional ways!
  2. We will be committed to the dual priorities of lowering the barrier of entry while raising the level of intellectual discourse and spiritual connection. As we welcome individuals into our community, we also want to excite and challenge them to think differently and seriously about the Jewish enterprise.
  3. We view social networking and the world of media and communications as an opportunity and as a tool for branding and marketing our messages, ideas, and services but not as the core of what we are or will become. These resources however will allow us to reach unaffiliated Jews and to speak to the many Americans who remain “unchurched”.
  4. We want to move from being seen as builders of institutions to being identified as enablers, allowing for relationship, engagement, and connection to define our standing and our message for those in search of religious meaning, personal relationship, social action, and a commitment to serious Jewish learning.
  5. We need to account for regional patterns of behavior and practice as the nature of change is uneven and may well take on different outcomes in various settings.

Our various constituencies are already articulating the challenges before us. In blogs and emails they have been sharing their concerns. Four themes are reflected in their messages to us:

American Judaism faces a set of demographic and social challenges, involving intermarriage, assimilation, the cost of Jewish living, and the changing nature of the Jewish family. Are we prepared to respond to these issues by articulating new and innovative ways to reach Jews?

How ought we to engage with Israel and world Jewry? What do we bring to the discourse of a global Jewish conversation?

Will our message be heard? Are we invoking the tools of technology and social networking that will allow us to reach our own constituencies and beyond?

Where do we stand on issues of religious authority? Who will speak for us on religious affairs and political concerns, and what are they saying? Are we still a faith community committed to the “prophetic voice” within Judaism or is our message today solely one of self-preservation? Can we operate effectively without a coherent and shared message?

Are there compelling ideas, and more significantly core Jewish values, that distinctively define and drive our agenda?

In building our future we ought to think about these additional elements as well:

  1. Defining our Organizational Niche: namely, can we afford to be a “Walmart”, meeting the diverse interests of an array of different audiences, or might we be seen as “Victory Secret”, specializing in meeting specific needs and serving a particular type of audience? Many of the emerging institutional models today are single-issue constituencies with a defined core message and mandate. Can our primary organizations, synagogues and mainline institutions, compete in this new market environment?
  2. Moving toward Consolidation and Collaboration: if we have learned anything about the current economic crisis, institutions will need to operate invoking a different paradigm. The new normal requires leaders to ask with whom and how can we build a working partnership? In this new culture, organizational collaboration trumps competition and acts of consolidation override the expansion of services.
  3. Building Brand Recognition and Establishing Market Share: the focus on creating a definitive statement and institutional plan of action that is designed to appeal to our target audience(s).
  4. Introducing a Culture of Experimentation: Institutions that will succeed in this new market environment are committed to an investment in new ideas and alternative institutional delivery models.

The new and emerging models of communal and religious institutions are particularly instructive:

  • In this current reality, people will participate or withdraw at any point along the continuum, as there is limited commitment to institutional loyalty and ideological affinity. As an outcome, the idea of membership and affiliation hold different values for younger Jews.
  • In the marketplace today one finds an array of institutional and virtual Jewish options. “Choice” becomes a key element in defining 21st century religious and communal practice. Do we provide a distinctive voice and a defining message?
  • Where in the past “the community” focused its energies on sustaining its core institutions, today “the individual” defines and shapes the idea of community to serve his/her ends. Can we bridge these individualized interests within the core mandate of our institution?
  • This will not be about numbers but it will be about reaching “one Jew at a time” and learning to reach our audiences in different ways than our current patterns of recruitment and connection. The Jewish experience must be seen as fluid, where our message and mission will operate as a moveable feast, reaching people where they are and when they are ready to engage in study or religious practice or social activism. Are we able to operate in this new paradigm?
  • If traditional religion was understood in the context of authority and control, then the emerging expressions of religious inquiry employ two contemporary notions: engaging popular culture’s emphasis on doing-it-yourself and employing an array of social networks to reach people who share common cause. In the process, an interactive narrative is created where there is the blurring of boundaries and a blending of ideas and rituals. Along with other social and cultural expressions in our society, religion is seen as a commodity that ought to “free” or at best available “on the cheap”. Are there alternative income streams to sustain us?
  • Jonathan Sarna reminds us that today, as in the past, new ideas in Jewish life are likely to come from outside in or emerge from the bottom up. We have come to learn that consumers today are also producers of ideas and the creators of institutional initiatives, thereby allowing the stage to be fully shared by leaders and followers. Are [we] equipped to embrace these voices and engage their ideas?
  • Five characteristics define the new Jewish Gen X’ers and their emerging institutional models: an emphasis on generational specific initiatives; a focus on single-issue causes and services; specialized attention to highly personalized efforts at outreach and engagement; consumer-friendly practices; and a particular appreciation for social networking, marketing, and branding. In the emerging world of the sovereign-self, ideology and movements hold limited meaning or personal value. Institutions will not gain traction as a result of ideological labels or historical standing rather loyalty will more likely be achieved if the activities and social focus of these organizations are seen as being in alignment with the world view of the prospective participant. How equipped are we to embrace a new social and structural model of organizing?

We must see the global Jewish environment through the lens of “Traditional” and “Emergent” systems, where old norms and practices are challenged by these new principles of organizing.

Jewish Global Environment “Traditional” “Emergent”
Timelines 100 years (1885-1985) Over the past 25 yeras: 250 New Jewish Institutional Models
Technology/Communications Centralized Information Social Networks
Leadership Models Leadership Peers and Networks Leadership Dispersed/Disconnected
Cultural Transitions Holocaust/State of Israel as Part of Shared Jewish Story Post-Modernism: Absence of a Shared- Story
Social Structures Collective Engagement Personal/Sovereign- Self
Market Transitions Centralized Messages Branding-Niche Marketing
The Nature of Institutions Power-Centered Institutions Knowledge-Based Organizations
Shift of Economic and Political Power Global Jewish Network and Relationships Localized-Personalized Connections and Commitments
Generational Challenges Shared Values and Interests Divided by Generational Values and Priorities

Understanding New Community Models

Five core elements define these new “emergent” religious and community models:

First, both emergent groups and traditional institutions that have sought to emulate some of the core characteristics of emergent structures are operating in urban, high density areas. Our research suggested that such experimental structures are far more likely to be evident in such markets as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles than in smaller or intermediate communities. Population density and the presence of a significant cohort of individuals under the age of 40 seem to be essential elements in nurturing and sustaining such transformational models. Younger professional families and singles that have disposable income represent essential features for the emergent model to be sustained.

A second key consideration involves “space and place”. Of importance here is the issue of not being 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.” Even for more traditional congregations and institutions, 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 models. These newer entities tend to be open to experimentation. This is best expressed in their willingness to introduce new organizing and programming schemes as a way both to test the marketplace and to reshape and present their “product”.

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


  1. 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.
  2. The creation of these new institutional models is often built around a passion-driven vision.
  3. A number of these new institutional structures operate around single-issue themes.
  4. Many of these new organizational initiatives exhibit a high degree of communalism, where small is seen as essential value. Unlike the more traditional institutional structures there is a lack of focus on
  5. Meeting the expectations of the prospective member, seeker, or client in these new types of institutions is understood to be a core organizing premise.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Leadership and Membership Factors:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Operational Characteristics:

  1. Experimentation reflects one of the primary and unique characteristics of emerging institutional models.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Many of these newly-formed groups seek to serve specific types of constituencies and direct their marketing to these target audiences.
  5. Coalitions and collaborative relationships define these emerging groups, often in contrast to traditional organizations that operate much more in a territorial environment.

In the chart that appears below, an effort has been made to incorporate some of the particular characteristics that may be at play today in synagogue life. The attention here is compare similar themes found in the First American Jewish Revolution (Ist AJR) with the practices operating today in the Second American Jewish Revolution (2nd AJR).

Unpacking the Second American Jewish Revolution

Themes 1st AJR 2nd AJR
Membership and Institutional Expectations: Structure-Informality Defined congregational practices and procedures. Organized to serve an identified community. Emphasis on small, intimate informal settings, operating as a counter cultural model.
Ritual and Liturgy: Worship-Davening Symbolic Connection vs. Participatory Engagement Movement-based prayer books and shared ritual practices. Identified with core religious ideas. Very high attention to experimentation
Social Justice: Integrative vs. Independent Integral part of synagogue focus, often tied to other core goals and programs. Entry point for many in search of aligning their Jewish beliefs with their commitment to social good within the world
Spirituality: Selective Participation vs. Emersion Keva-Kavonnah Understood in the context of prayer and selective lectures and discussions. Seen as one of the distinctive elements of the new model with high emphasis on spirituality
Text-Based Materials: Refocusing on Jewish Roots and Rituals: Interpretation – Engagement Selectively introduced in special classes and adult-sponsored weekends Particular interest in original texts and text-based learning as part of the return to tradition. Texts are seen as core to the message and meaning of the 2AJR
Movement-Oriented Participation: Localism vs. Nationalism Generic sponsored programs and services open to all member congregations Often grassroots generated and without a formal affiliation with core institutions.
The Marketplace: Collective-Individualistic Synagogue members seen as a generic market, with specialized services created for some target groupings Target marketing designed to serve specific segmented groups by interest or by generation.
The World of the Virtual: Selective Connections to E-learning vs. Intense Connections Internet resources serve congregational and communal needs and certain particular activities. Much of the focus here tends to be on-line and with a focus on individualized learning and participation.
Geography and Time: Place and Space Formal and fixed sets of programs and rituals, usually in set locations Informal happenings and unset locations; time is relative
Style and Structure: Corporate-Independent Community focus with defined leadership roles Cult of personality and small group models; often highly unstructured.

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.