Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

In this Age of Transition: Reframing the American Jewish Communal Model

Community is a central tenet in the shaping of Jewish history! So, what might happen if such a core element is no longer central to the Jewish story? We explore the many factors that are contributing to the undoing of this sacred principle. Moving beyond our work on these pages in August, in this essay we want to understand the implications of such downsizing and transformational change.[1]

Like all complex organisms they have parts that are visible—they (communities) have neighborhoods, streets, businesses, schools, and the like. And they have parts that are integral to a community’s life but are less visible: human relationships, families, histories, memories, flows of income and debt, and the like. Among the most important of these are human relationships and history.[2]

For Jews, the idea of community has been associated with the preservation of a tradition, the care and welfare of its members, the support for the Jewish organizing enterprise: the State of Israel and Diaspora constituencies, the memorializing of its history, etc.

We understand community to be greater than the sum of its parts, yet it includes core institutions that help to frame and execute its agenda; it incorporates members, donors, consumers and thought leaders who provide sustenance, give input and draw upon its resources. The communal enterprise is defined by the ideas that it represents, the outcomes that it collectively generates, and the sense of the collective that it seeks to create.

We have always understood for community to exist, we require “common goals”. As we know, “common threats” always help to forge groups coming together. A degree of separation or isolation from others gives distinctiveness and identity to the idea of community. The presence of “barriers to entry” can be seen as helping to distinctively define a group. Such boundaries maybe identified as knowledge, experiences, or possibly skills.[3]

The challenges facing our institutions contributes to the broader uprooting of the communal order. The health of organizations, synagogues, social service agencies, advocacy groups and more, defines the welfare and viability of the communities that they represent. Communities go through transitional changes, experiencing a life-cycle phenomenon.[4] In a number of articles over a twenty-year period, we have attempted to document the general trends that frame communal practice, organizational conduct, and Jewish political behavior.

Today, a number of key elements are reshaping American life and culture, creating a corollary impact on the American Jewish community:

The Shrinking of the American Middle Class: The share of US adults living in middle-income households fell below 50%. The financial gap between middle- and upper-income Americans has widened, with upper-income households holding 49% of US aggregate household income (up from 29% in 1970) and seven times as much wealth as middle-income households.

Decline in American Religiosity: The Pew Study (2021) on American religious behavior offers several key findings that we can apply to the Jewish communal space as well:

  • Religious Nones: One-in-five US adults (20%) now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 14% who said this 10 years ago.
  • Affiliation: 63% of US adults who identify as Christians, down from 75% a decade ago, 6% of adults identify with non-Christian faiths.
  • Religious Switching: 31% of Americans, ages 15-31, report that they have or intend to “switch” or “leave” the religion in which they were raised.

The Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit”:  Why people are throwing in the towel? Employees between 30 and 45 years old have had the greatest increase in resignation rates, with an average increase of more than 20% between 2020 and 2021. 3.6% more health care employees quit their jobs than in the previous year, and in the field of technology, resignations increased by 4.5%. Resignation rates were higher among employees who have worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout. A recent 2021 Federal Reserve Study found that baby boomers were leaving jobs and selling businesses in order to retire early. This pattern has accelerated due to “pandemic burnout.”

The “Great Resignation” and professional burn out combined with the challenges of identifying and securing the talent that organizations will require may represent the primary employment issue facing the nonprofit marketplace.

Escaping Cities: The pandemic has caused both young and older populations to migrate out of cities. A July 2020 Pew research study found that roughly one in five Americans either relocated due to the pandemic or know someone who has.

The Greying of America: One of the outcomes that we will be experiencing will involve the housing market. The number of older homeowners who exit homeownership between 2026 and 2036 is projected to be between 13.1 million and 14.6 million, an increase of at least 42 percent over the previous decade.

The demographic future for the United States and the world looks very different than the recent past. Growth from 1950 to 2010 was rapid — the global population nearly tripled, and the US population doubled. However, population growth from 2010 to 2050 is projected to be significantly slower, creating economic disruptions in employment, housing, and governance.

Changing Living Patterns:  With the high cost of housing, student debt, and tighter credit rules, the percentage of non-married young adults living with their parents has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2017, increasing from 12 percent to 22 percent. These trends have only accelerated during COVID.

Addressing these Patterns of Change:

Institutions faced with these rapid and significant trends are being tested as never before. The overall effectiveness and capacity of institutions to perform can be compromised and even paralyzed as a result of these transformative forces. [5]

The specific “influencers” posted below are contributing factors in recalibrating communal culture and institutional practice:

  • Generational Behaviors and Patterns
  • Cultural Motifs, Patterns and Tastes
  • Leadership Challenges
  • Social Forces
  • Market Forces and Economic Conditions
  • Institutional Life Cycle Issues
  • Vision and Mission
  • External Threats and Opportunities
  • Legal Issues
  • Competition

The Jewish Communal Order: These ten elements have and will continue to be significant in forecasting outcomes that will reshape our communities. More directly, the five elements identified below are transforming the Jewish communal marketplace:

  • Changing generational and social behaviors
  • Shifting philanthropic options and proclivities
  • Challenging economic and competitive factors
  • Emerging cultural influences and technological resources
  • Growing impact of “privatized” Judaism and the rise of virtual Judaism[6]

In observing the Jewish communal landscape, organizations today are experiencing a fundamental realignment of institutional practice. Within the Jewish ecosystem, we are simultaneously encountering the re-engineering of legacy institutions, the continued emergence of new startup organizations, and the introduction of social media platforms and alternative delivery systems. In my earlier work, I had suggested that we are possibly at the end of community, as we have traditionally understood this concept. We would remind ourselves that institutions may or may not be seen as part of a communal presence. As many institutions move to brand their distinctive voice, often outside of or in place of the communal order!

Introducing contemporary change theory maybe particularly instructive in order to explain some of the significant changes we are encountering at this time. What we are learning is that when communities are simultaneously overwhelmed by internal challenges and external realities, the change process is no longer systematizedDisruptive change alters the ability of communities to effectively operate. When such conditions are in place, we find leaders attempting to recalibrate organizational practice by either operating from behind seeking to regain coherence, or we identify leadership patterns driving institutions to perform ahead of the change curve, in other words, resetting the table in an attempt to be proactive!

But what are the “causes” associated with this state of disruption?

  • Culture: In this third decade of the 21st century, generational and demographic behaviors are driving the scope and pace of change. The national discussion and debate around diversity and inclusion, encompassing sexual orientation, racism, cancel culture is profoundly reshaping Jewish life, institutional practice and communal policy.
  • Economy: The economic order is undergoing a significant recalibration. The impact of inflation, the shifting character of work, transformative financial resources, new entrepreneurial business models, the rise of social media and e-commerce, among other forces, are contributing as well to the reshaping institutional performance and practice.
  • Identity: American Jewish assimilation is being reframed! Social mores and cultural norms are altering how Jews understand and embrace their Jewish identity in the context of their Americanism. We are now in the 4th and even 5th generation of our American Jewish journey, further contributing to the changing patterns of affiliation and identity. External challenges, including contemporary antisemitism and the disruptive state of domestic politics, must be seen as factors in shaping social behaviors of Jewish Americans.
  • Trust: The decline of trust in established institutions and the loss of confidence in key leaders, evident in the civic culture, represents a phenomenon also present within the religious sector, as symbolized by the rise of the “Religious Nones,” further minimizing the impact and credibility of our communal and religious infrastructures.
  • Leadership: The test of any organization is centered on the quality and depth of its leadership bench! Leaders are being tested as never before as they confront both internal challenges and external threats.
  • Individualism: The idea of community and the value of the collective have been replaced by an overarching attention to individualism. The primacy of the sovereign self remains a core challenge when trying to construct a communal culture.
  • Technology: The impact of technology is rapidly and radically transforming communal behavior as we monitor the rise of virtual Judaism and see the impact of “privatized” Jewish expression. Since 2020, 13% more Americans are employing social media. 37% of us are now using Instagram, and across the globe, Facebook is reaching 2.8 billion viewers. Some 271 million Americans now communicate via Smartphone.[7]

What are the current transformational features driving communal practice?[8]

  • Experimentation and New Economic Models: When projecting ahead, we can anticipate the introduction of experimental communal models, as institutions move to be responsive to these social changes. We are already observing alternative membership and funding proposals in connection with how institutions will manage their operational expenses as the dues and membership models are being reevaluated and in some settings discarded. Most likely, membership and fundraising organizations will be seeking to develop alternative revenue streams, if they are to successfully operate over the decades ahead!

We should not underestimate the impact of COVID on the nonprofit sector. A newly released study, examining the impact of the pandemic on nonprofit performance reported the following:[9]

Forty percent of nonprofits (including 54 percent of arts and 36 percent of all other nonprofits) reported losing total revenue in 2020. On average, they lost 31 percent of total revenue and 7 percent of paid staff by year’s end. Among nonprofits that reported receiving fees for services in 2019, fees for services declined 30 percent at the median in 2020. The decrease in program-related revenues is likely to have exacerbated financial challenges, as more organizations.

Outcomes: There is a growing tendency in connection with both costs and operational conditions for many organizations to downsize. Demographic and generational factors are contributing to mergers and closures of religious and communal organizations. In a post-COVID society, we are seeing shifting work patterns and changing requirements in connection with programming space. We are already seeing a sharp decline in the amount of Jewish communal physical space being maintained by national organizations, local agencies, some synagogues and schools. Economics, technology and demography are the key drivers in generating these structural changes.

 A countervailing response is simultaneously taking place, the continued expansion and development of new Jewish cultural, religious and political expressions. While most of these emergent groups will be small, often on-line expressions, they represent the residual, creative and entrepreneurial strength that is our community, reminding us that change is a constant!

The five trends, posted below, are and will have significant impact on Jewish communal practice:

  • Hybrid Programming: We are likely to continue to see a hybrid approach to much of Jewish programming, as audiences are being given options reflective of their preference levels in connection with how they may wish to participate! Moving forward, this alignment of both in-person and Zoom access will afford individual choices for audiences. To add to this level of uncertainty, over the next several years, it is conceivable that we will experience additional “waves” of COVID.
  • Personal Well-Being: Institutions are reporting as a result of the pandemic the expenditure of significant and new resources in managing the emotional, physical and mental well-being of memberships, clients and staffs. This recalibration directed toward meeting the needs and priorities of individuals is a signature outcome of COVID.
  • Communal Security: Security considerations have emerged as core to the operational priorities of Jewish institutions, resulting in budgetary adjustments to account for the physical and personnel needs associated with this heightened attention to safety and security!
  • Inflationary and Recessionary Trends: As the community experience the impact of inflation and the prospects of a recession, we are likely to see increased pressures to upgrade dues, fees and charges. Further, inflationary challenges will impact salaries of existing personnel and new hires. The effects of such economic pressures is creating deleterious effects of retirees living with fixed incomes, as it is challenging for families and individuals in making financial choices in connection with Jewish participation and giving.
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Across the American landscape there is an increased awareness and attention to the importance of creating institutional environments reflective of our diversity as a society and as a community. 

Planning for the Future:

Communities today have zero time to lose! In an increasingly competitive environment, institutions that are not transforming how they do business may be living on borrowed time. The failure to innovate represents a major threat. I worry whether communal innovation and creativity will be able to offset the growing influence of the current social and cultural forces of assimilation. 

What elements could possibly counteract the changing scenarios?  The factor of overt antisemitic behavior in this nation and/or a dangerous and serious threat to the security and viability of the State of Israel might possibly generate a form of reconnection with the Jewish communal scene. Potentially, a new round of an “American Religious Awakening” might recalibrate the American Jewish experience.[10] A shift from hyper-individualism to communalism may likewise spark a renaissance of American Judaism. But outside of these forces acting upon Jews, what will bind Jews to community? Subject to one or more of these influencers dominating the communal stage, we may be experiencing the end of community as we have historically understood this sacred and core idea!

We are seeing profound changes in the Jewish world. When our communities return to this new normal, we may well be inheriting a weakened and financially compromised communal infrastructure. Moving forward, how communities will be seen, understood, and embraced will be the overarching challenge? What will bind Jews to a collective understanding of their shared interests?

Despite the significant presence of pockets of creativity and individual examples of financial growth and institutional sustainability, the footprint of the American Jewish community is likely to continue to alter and to decline. At the mid-point of the 21st Century, our communities will be seen as more operationally diffuse, ideologically divided, and culturally and generationally separate! 




[4] A listing of my writings on communal trends and practices:







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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