Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Jewish Manifesto: Where We Are and Where We Need to Be

We are at a unique moment in time. Our America democracy is being tested as never before. Just as this election has created a degree of uncertainty, Jews are increasingly concerned about the growing levels of hate directed against them and others.

As Jews and as Americans, we have faced challenges before. Now, at this moment, we also have an opportunity to revisit the operational principles in connection with the state of our community, to reimagine our partnership with America, and to reconstruct our global role. Few moments in time permit a people or a society the possibilities to reposition itself in response to the existential issues that are testing our society.

The Challenges Before Us:

Our community is experiencing the trauma of this pandemic, the impact of the unsettled American street, the economic implications of this moment, and the political fallout with its all of its anger and angst.

At this time, we must also embrace the needs of our fellow citizens, as we become aware that millions of people are experiencing social, psychological and financial pain in the aftermath of this pandemic.

The deep cultural and economic divisions that separate us as a society require our response. Across this nation, and worldwide, we are facing economically destabilized and politically challenged communities.

New expressions of anti-Semitism and the presence of hate messaging accompanied by anti-social behaviors are contributing to the undermining of civic discourse.  The deep cultural racial and political divisions have added further tension to our troubled state of relationships.

Yet, with all of this pain, we have a unique opportunity, an obligation, to creatively and constructively impact the lives of our fellow Jews, our larger society and this nation. Few moments as part of our American Jewish journey demand more of us than this point in time.

How Shall We Respond?

Building Steps for the Future: Let us begin with this election! Ignite, a digital agency working with Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, has launched a nonpartisan initiative, Free&Fair: Our Duty to Democracy.[1] As part of this effort, The Election Day Pledge has  brought together over 60 orgs (some 1600 employees) including AJWS, NCJW, the URJ/CCAR/HUC, JTS, Uri L’Tzedek, and more.

Jewish Women Vote, an event co-sponsored by Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and Jewish Women International (JWI) marks another collective initiative that deserves to be acknowledged and duplicated.[2]

Our Jewish Voice: This is a critical time where we as a community must manage and promote civil discourse, while rejecting extremism, racism and class division.  At this time, we require a dialogue that brings Jews of different political and religious perspectives together.

At this moment, Jews appear eager to rebuild these torn connections that have divided them, one from another.  Finding avenues of communication among peoples should represent a core priority for our community, as we seek to make whole a divided constituency. How might we envision an intra-Jewish dialogue, where Orthodox and Reform Jews, Republican and Democratic Jews encounter each other?  The tools for such initiatives exist. Who will take the lead in launching such conversations?

 On New Beginnings: The America we knew prior to this pandemic will not be the society we will inherit following our exit from this place in time.

An Internal Revolution Is Before Us: Historically, as a communal system we operated in institutional silos. This competitive framework served us well in the past but in this moment collaborative partnerships ought to inform and shape our operational principles moving forward. We no longer have the financial capacity, demographic base, or institutional resources to operate in structural isolation. The Jewish story is a collective one, accordingly our institutions must also reflect that call for a shared response. We will need to align what we learned during this pandemic with the framing of a post-pandemic communal model.

Our Great Learning Encounter: We have experienced during this pandemic the largest experiment in Jewish learning and engagement in the history of the Jewish people. The extraordinary exposure that Jewish institutions have enjoyed during this pandemic in promoting and sharing Jewish learning, prayer and information represents an opportunity for us to more completely analyze and assess what we have experienced over these past months as we position ourselves to move our communal enterprise forward.

Our Shared Responsibility:  We require a new financial partnership  that allows us to bring together our federations, community foundations, family funders, and major donors in collective action to aid those in need as well as to address the long term needs and strategic directions for our institutions, synagogues and schools.

On Leadership: We have an opportunity to provide leadership, institutional guidance, financial investment to the institutions within our own community, just as we must lend expertise to those organizations and structures beyond our communal borders. Identifying, preparing and placing leaders in all the different venues of our communal system, the nonprofit sector, and within the public square must become one of our core responsibilities. Just as communal sector is desperate for a new generation of leadership, so are the various tiers of the public sector in need of visionary leaders.

A Learning Moment: We need to invest in how we as a community are changing, and in what ways this pandemic has and will alter and transform us. The economic realities, the emerging demographic characteristics, and the changing generational images of who we are and what we are becoming represent ingredients to the unfolding picture of how we will operate in the decades moving forward.

Beyond our Community:

In the Public Square: This is a time for political engagement, requiring of us to reimagine a vibrant and essential community relations agenda, focusing on the core issues of intergroup relations, economic access and social justice, civics education, and much more. This is unique opportunity  for our community to build partnerships with other faith, ethnic and racial constituencies.  A new American motif needs to be constructed in the aftermath of this moment.

In this Election Season: Various issues serve to discourage and alienate voters. Impediments to voting, the need for campaign finance reform, and the high costs associated with running for public office represent a few of the challenges in making our democracy accessible and transparent. Ensuring that our ballots are safe and counted, that voter harassment is curtailed, and that the institutions of our democracy are able to regain the public’s trust must become part of our collective effort.

Managing Diversity:  The presence of groups who represent the political extremes in this nation suggests that there are constituencies who feel left out, angry and marginalized. As this society changes demographically, how we engage these sectors will be a test of the resiliency of this democracy. Beyond our community, we must acknowledge racial injustice and economic inequality exist and real historical barriers experienced by our citizens of color must be ended. A new American social contract must be framed that brings the voices of all of our peoples to the public table.

Civics Education:  Along with other concerned Americans we need to launch a new initiative in civics education and American history and culture. Our citizens must share in the opportunity to articulate their interests and expectations; we need to create the learning frameworks in connection with how one can effectively and responsibly access political elites, organize in order to promote political initiatives, and mount campaigns on behalf of candidates and causes. The renewal of trust in all phases of our public setting requires that our citizens assume a renewed interest in the various facets of our social order and this democratic experiment.

This statement is but a beginning to the significant and essential work before us. Let us begin the journey to repair our society and rebuild our community.

[1] https://www.free-and-fair.org/

[2] https://www.jwi.org/calendar/jewish-women-vote

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk 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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