Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

American Jewish Organizing Principles: A 21st Century Perspective

We have identified twelve organizing ideas that define 21st Century American Jewish communal behaviors and outcomes:

  1. Jewish history is constantly informing and reshaping contemporary Jewry. The American Jewish experience, however, must be understood to represent a distinctive cultural and operational phenomenon. Since the end of the Second World War, the Jewish communal system was successful in both managing external challenges and internal expectations, today we are experiencing a new normal, driven by a series of internal “revolutions” upending the existing communal order and an array of external “threats”. The impact of changing generational expectations, the presence of economic pressures, the emergence of social media platforms and the realities of declining loyalties and trust are producing new policy and structural outcomes for the 21st Century American Judaism.
  2. If in the 19th and 20th Centuries we saw American Judaism as denominationally-based; in this century we can best describe religious behavior as personalized where multiple “Judaisms” are in play.
  3. Today, many of our traditional organizations are saddled with a 19th Century legacy structure, while managing a 20th Century agenda, as we engage a 21st Century community.
  4. If core needs of our community defined Jewish organizing of the 19th Century, then innovation is driving 21st Century institutional behavior and practice. If federations managed the communal agenda of the 20th Century, today, community and family foundations, as well as individual funders, are contributing to the reshaping of 21st Century Jewish life.
  5. If American Jews believed that following the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel would generate greater Jewish protections, then the realities of this century are rudely reminding our community of the growing presence of new threats to global Jewish and Israeli security.   Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment and actions may well define and reshape the 21st Century Jewish experience.
  6. If New York was seen as the Jewish Capital and center of Jewish life in an earlier era, where ideas and practice moved from east to west; today innovation is unfolding everywhere on this continent, with many of the current demographic and organizational trends now moving in reverse, from west to east!
  7. Beginning in 1985, a new American Jewish revolution was unleashed with the emergence of “boutique” organizations, who have become an integral part of the communal market space. This organizing model is centered on innovation and entrepreneurship. By contrast, 19th and 20th Century “legacy” organizations are defined as formal, networked and corporate structures.  In the wake of this “revolution” we have witnessed the undoing of the Jewish collective, where today a variety of political ideas are competing for attention, as the concepts of Peoplehood, Zionism, and Judaism are all being challenged.
  8. If 18th and 19th Century American Judaism was constructed in order to help accommodate Jews to this new society, then 21st Century Judaism is being reshaped by such transformative forces as diversity, inclusion, and individualism. Technology is revolutionizing how religious cultures are delivering their messages, services, and programs. Demographic, economic and generational factors are fundamentally transforming Jewish life. Internal operational challenges are generating new forms of organizational cultural practices and structural experimentation.
  9. If American capitalist ideas described and framed the behaviors of the historic Jewish organizations over the two earlier centuries, currently various alternative forms of economic practice, including collaborative engagement, entrepreneurial behavior and community organizing models, are in play.
  10. If Jewish political influence and philanthropic giving were centralized during the second half of the last century, where ADL led the fight against antisemitism, AIPAC managed the Israel political case, the Reform Movement defined the liberal domestic agenda, AJC controlled inter-religious affairs and Federations dominated the Israel giving field and Jewish social service marketplace, the 21st Century has exploded with the presence of an array of Jewish advocacy initiatives, multiple boutique giving choices, and the presence of distinctive, highly-segmented organizing models, all now competing for communal space and a share of the Jewish market economy!
  11. If lay leadership drove the communal agenda in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Jewish professionals, outside experts and corporate contractors are managing/directing the 21st Century Jewish infrastructure. The imprint of technology and economic data points are the contemporary behaviors of the Jewish marketplace. If the communal space was seen as a growth industry in the 20th Century, it is likely to be understood as being in a state of recalibration and downsizing in this time frame. Historically, within the American Jewish economy, competition shaped communal outcomes, collaborative initiatives however will drive the Jewish communal future.
  12. Today, we see a diversity of religious, cultural, and spiritual expressions. In the 21st Century, we are experiencing two phenomena occurring simultaneously:
  • The emergence of a “bottom-up” form of Jewish organizing and engagement, highly privatized and self-directed in its outcomes.
  • Correspondingly, we can document the creation of a virtual, nationally based system of organizing, as defined by the rise of “national” synagogues.
About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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