June 8, 2012
‘How adaptable is the Jewish community in managing change?’
Dr. Steven F. Windmueller, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and author of “The Unfolding of the Third American Jewish Revolution”, discusses the past, present and future responses of the American Jewish community to broader societal changes.
The First American Jewish Revolution involved the creation of the major institutions of the Jewish community; the majority of these organizations were established during the period of great waves of Eastern European immigration, 1880-1920. Among the institutions that were created during that time-frame involved our federation system, our religious denominational movements, our national agencies (ADL, American Jewish Committee, JWB, JDC, etc…), and our major educational and cultural bodies.
The Second American Jewish Revolution, 1983-2008, provided a counter-voice to the first round of institutions. If the initial set of institutions were multi-layered, crisis-centered, and multi-generational in their composition, then the array of new organizations that would emerge over this 25-year period, were centered on single-issue concerns, designed to serve specific constituencies, and focused on a boutique form of Jewish expression and engagement.
I think such “revolutions” neither reflect the strength or weakness of the community, per se. They reflect the demographic, economic, and cultural changes that one sees within American society. How well our community adjusts to these transformative moments that may better define or reflect the “strength” test. How adaptable is the community in managing change?
I think we will ultimately be significantly “meaner and weaker”; so how does that play out? American Jews simply cannot afford the rich array of institutional choices that has been our good fortune to see on the Jewish landscape. Our demographic numbers and financial resources would suggest that we will need to think in terms of a more narrow system of institutional options. Clearly, we will see some institutions merge with others, while others will move to take on a different mandate, and sadly, there will a set of organizations that will leave the playing field.
Rather than speak of a community “where we once were”, I would suggest we are moving into a different type of communal network of institutions. The marketplace may well dictate these outcomes, as consumers Jews will opt for particular types of choices, and this is in part the exciting unknown!
As noted in my paper and elsewhere, institutions fill gaps in service and consumer demand. We are likely to see a realignment of institutional roles as some national and local organizations move out of certain functions, others will move-in to supply the essential unmet or desired communal needs. The market will dictate outcomes.
We desperately need a national consultation, designed to address these global and financial challenges that impact our community. In an article that will appear in eJewishphilanthropy.com (Tuesday, June 5th), I call for the establishment of a Jewish Investment Bank and the creation of a R&D (Research and Development) Fund, which might stimulate new thinking as well as seed new initiatives to reinvent the Jewish communal marketplace.
One of the questions on which you do not give full answer is a question entitled “Jews take care of their own”. You write: “Is this premise still viable? Will Jews respond through their communal and religious networks?” Well, is it viable?
This premise is viable for some Jews, and yet not for others. My answer in fact reflects the particular generation or “revolutionary” cohort from which someone may view this question. Older Jews see this as the collective and central obligation of the Jewish community. Younger Jews will more likely examine this question through the prism that this ought to be the collective obligation of the society and its myriad of institutions, regardless of faith. “Distinctiveness” seems less a characteristic shared today by all Jews. This in no way suggests that younger Jews are less committed to the care and wellbeing of our citizens, but they reflect their connection here as a universal value, not an exclusive Jewish one.