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Jewish Journal

A National Conversation on the American Jewish Future

by Steven Windmueller

Posted on Oct. 21, 2009 at 2:08 am

A new level of uneasiness now dominates our general society and, more directly, the Jewish community. We are living in one of the most transformative moments in history, resulting in the reshaping of the human condition, where the global enterprise is undergoing a major technology and communications revolution, the reconfiguration of political power, the creation of a world economic order, and a significant generational shift in cultural attitudes and social behaviors and norms.

Throughout Jewish history, at moments of great social upheaval and religious transitions, Jews would communicate with their co-religionists in order to redefine their status. Community leaders would come together to assess their political and religious concerns and define ways in which the communal enterprise ought to engage the larger civic society as well as address internal priorities. 

Such a national Jewish conversation is needed at this time. Major international challenges and domestic concerns set the framework for such consultation of Jewish leadership. At this time world Jewry must deal with the growth of international terrorism, the re-emergence of European anti-Semitism and a growing focus on anti-Israel activism across the globe, in addition to the military threats posed by Iran directed against Israel and Western interests. On the domestic side, a number of factors are contributing to the remaking of the American Jewry. As a result of the current economic climate, Jewish institutions are experiencing significant fiscal and operational challenges, leading in some cases to major restructuring of primary programs and services and in other settings, the actual closing of organizations. In addition, high rates of assimilation and intermarriage along with changing generational affiliation and identity patterns will result in a fundamentally different ethnic and social composite of Jews within society. This can best be reflected in the demographic issues facing Jewish Americans, as portrayed by lower participation and membership rates, a significantly aging population, and a growing cultural and religious disconnect between younger Jews and prior generations.

Critics of the American Jewish scene, while acknowledging the creativity and growth among some sectors of Jewish life, bemoan the failure of the centerpiece of the communal and religious world to demonstrate the same type of innovation and structural dynamism. To the contrary, as the creative Jewish edge pursues its particularistic interests, the core seems to be imploding as downsizing and institutional malaise reflect the storyline of some of our most potent organizational systems. Such a national conversation is long overdue among American Jewish leaders, as it would come at a time when the communal enterprise seems unclear with regard to its mandate as well as deeply divided along political and ideological lines.

The last time American Jewry came together for such a gathering occurred in 1943, when the American Jewish Conference mobilized the community to advocate for a Jewish state in Palestine. Earlier gatherings, for example, led to the creation of the Reform movement in the 1870s and fostered the mobilization of an American Jewish response following the end of World War I. As in the past, some institutional leaders elected not to participate in such discussions, fearing the loss of their identity and arguing against the notion that any one group or combination of organizational voices might speak for or represent American Jewry. Yet, regularly throughout the 20th century, significant numbers of American Jewish institutions did convene to tackle shared international concerns related to such matters as Israel and Soviet Jewry.

While no institutional body has the authority to legislate social or structural change, a thoughtful and essential summit of Jewish leadership would seem to be both appropriate and necessary. Participation and engagement must be seen as a responsibility that transcends institutional boundaries, ideological and religious positions, and political passions. The federation system and synagogue umbrella structures must join national agencies in convening such a Jewish dialogue.

Similar convocations should also take place within our local communities, allowing leaders to re-imagine ways in which institutions might work in collaboration, while identifying unmet needs, shared concerns and common action. Both on the national scene and within our local settings, such conversations can lead to the re-imagination of American Judaism and the Jewish communal system of governance, leadership, financial planning and collaboration.

Beyond this national dialogue, a global conference should be convened to address the threatening international challenges facing the Jewish people and, more directly, the Jewish state. With multiple voices expressing themselves on issues related to Diaspora-Israel matters, such a gathering would allow for the articulation of shared values, common principles of action and the implementation of specific action points.

Further, a consultation on the status of Jewish leadership ought to bring together key educational resources and operational players in order to examine how as a community we will recruit and train our professional leadership. Similarly, what steps are we willing to take as a community to also “invest” in building a new generation of lay leaders? The question of leadership represents a crucial and essential institutional challenge and may ultimately define the success and viability of 21st century Judaism.

Establishing a think tank on behalf of American Jewry would seem to be one of several possible outcomes — just as American business is currently examining consumer trends, so must our community invest in a major research and planning structure.

In the end, for such a national dialogue to be successful, institutional leaders must step away from historical organizational rivalries, personal ego trips and set operational assumptions. The focus for such discussions must be on finding common ground and a renewed sense of communal purpose.

While these prior convocations were directed toward specific outcomes, this national conversation must address myriad challenges now confronting American Judaism and its communal network of institutions and services. Such a dialogue can lead to the re-imagination of American Judaism and a serious conversation on the future of the Jewish communal system of governance, leadership and financial viability. There are few occasions in history when a community has the opportunity to shape and define its future; this may be one of those transformational moments for American Jewry.


Steven Windmueller is dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service.

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