Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

American Liberal Judaism’s Future: A Quick Take

Framing American Judaism:  Judaism has always had to endure and accommodate to change. Two organizing models helped to shape American Judaism.  Adopting the Protestant idea of “denominations”, the American Jewish religious framework would employ this form of identification.  Similarly, drawing on American Progressivism, a second organizing model was incorporated for the federated model of American Jewish social and human services. From 1880-1985, this dual church-state system proved successful within the American Jewish context.

Managing the New American Judaism: We can either plan for or merely await the emergence of new Jewish delivery schemes. All of this is happening from outside in or from the bottom up as we will see a series of new Jewish religious institutional forms of synagogue life emerging. The pace and the nature of change in the 21st Century make this moment both unique and challenging. Some of these organizing models will emulate what we already know or have seen at other times and places in Jewish history. Since 1985, the “Second American Jewish Revolution”[1] would introduce a boutique model of communal and religious organizations, filling specific programmatic niches and distinctively playing to the changing tastes, interests and expectations of America’s Jews.

Shifting Sands of American Religion: While our values are eternal, our institutions must be seen as transitory.

We are living in an eco-system that celebrates and promotes individualism and social media connectivity. The marketplace in this new century is fluid.[2] Human behavior reminds us that tastes and choices change, as the religious space serves as a reflection of social behaviors, both as consumers and believers. The market dictates outcomes, as a new economic order is evolving suggesting in the near term that our religious communities will be operating with fewer resources. It is a period during which we are likely to see the continued downsizing and even closure of many of our key institutions. If competition and capitalism described the American religious model of the past, collaboration and partnerships will be the mantra for the emerging religious marketplace. These changes align with other liberal faith traditions. Leadership will be operating within an environment of social and political instability. In this post-pandemic era, we will require entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial leaders.

Allowing Many Flowers to Bloom:  The emerging changes in synagogue life in North America will include various organizing schemes. The shift from the contemporary synagogue model to multiple organizing and delivery approaches, from online Judaism to highly individualized or privatized models of personal religious expression. In the near term, we will need to accommodate to the desires and needs of the “dwellers” (those who are a part of our communities), as we prepare to embrace the seekers.  The arrival of multi-Judaisms is at hand. The new organizing models will be highly specialized, with distinctive offerings, appealing to a market economy of choice and to individualized needs (privatized Judaism).[4]

Synagogues will be increasingly taking on many of the functions of JCC’s, just as we are likely to observe Centers and other organizations become ‘’synagogue-lite”. The melding of institutional boundaries is in play. Four factors are impacting Jewish participation: diversity and inclusion, financial limitations, the deep political/social divisions, and the nature and quality of Jewish programming.

Creating Religious Outcomes: Millennials and Gen-Z’ers are framing the new religious expression. We are experiencing an era of Fluid Religiosity[5] The issues of loneliness, the need for connectivity, and the desire for community will define our organizing. In the process, we will observe the creation of multiple membership and organizing models. Social media and other technologies will reframe the 21st Century religious experience.  Virtual Judaism will serve a particular constituency of on-line participants, as we observe the rise of the “national” virtual synagogue![6] Spiritual Jewish expression appears to be on the ascendency.

Rethinking Religious Leadership Models: We will see the emergence of a whole new leadership framework, where we will monitor leadership teams comprised of rabbis, educators, social workers, community organizers, and institutional business managers. The new organizing format will require a multi-faceted team of resource personnel to both meet the needs of our constituencies and to effectively compete in the new religious economy.

Unpacking Synagogue Business Models: Entrepreurialism will be a key organizing principle. Partnerships among institutions will likely replace silo synagogue operational approaches. To be successful, these new models will require multiple income options where all different forms of business operations will be in playSynagogues without multiple revenue streams will be in trouble! Institutions, such as Adventure Judaism, will increasingly reshape religious life, reshaping both how and what Jews will be seeking. Just as we are seeing the mergers and closure of churches, we will see similar patterns within the Jewish religious environment.

Planning Strategies for the Future: 

  • Essential Conversations: Invite Jews into conversations focused on the “great issues” of our times as well as engage our constituencies around our issues of liberal Judaism. People are desperate for community, conversation, and connectivity. No one is prepared to host and carry forward these essential, yet difficult conversations around the themes that divide and separate Jews from one another.
  • Innovation Fund: Experimentation will be a core mantra in planning for the future.This moment provides us with an opportunity to seed new and innovative models of spiritual and religious connection, community-building ventures, Jewish educational initiatives, and new up-start program models. Moving forward, partnerships will be a critical organizing tool.
  • Center for Jewish Learning: In alignment with a culture of collaboration, we need to seek partners from all avenues of the Jewish communal orbit and beyond, including Hadar, Hartman, Pardes, Wexner and more. Partnerships will be a defining element of 21st Century religious culture.
  • National Training Program for Outreach and Engagement: Can we create a cadre of Jewish leaders who are inspired, prepared and trained to lead and engage us in rewiring and recreating new models of community and revitalizing existing ones?
  • Real Estate Investment Project: We will continue to see the shedding of properties, as both economic and demographic factors suggest the weakening of key legacy and boutique Jewish institutions. This also provides us with an opportunity to re-imagine the use of our facilities. There is the need for case study materials on mergers and downsizing and the most effective reappropriation of Jewish religious venues.

 Understanding the Outcomes: Moving forward, how ought we to define ourselves? Today, we are a part of a larger cohort, Liberal American Judaism, as we have an opportunity to build collaborative partnerships, beyond our existing denominational walls, with an array of institutional players both within our existing orbit and beyond!

We are embarking upon a journey of discovery, innovation and change! May it provide a new level of excitement, generate a robust and energized community of learners, and in the process promote a renewed and vital American Judaism.

  • Fewer but stronger congregational units, as we experience consolidations, mergers and closures.
  • Innovation and experimentation will be defining themes.
  • Our New Tasks: Managing the dwellers, serving the seekers, and reaching the NONES.
  • The New Mantra: A renewed and specific focus on spirituality-cultural arts-environment-social justice. 






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.