Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Principles of communal practice

In previous commentaries on such behavioral trends, I have had occasion to identify specific patterns unique to the Jewish communal sector.[1] The impact of the pandemic, the rise of social media, and the disruptive political climate are each contributing factors to a set of changing operational realities. Beyond the data offered here, the Nonprofit Times’ report, 11 Trends in Philanthropy for 2021, that provide additional insights into the current marketplace.[2]

  • The communal market is driven by five influencers:

Economic Access: The capacity of institutions to raise significant resources that supports the Jewish economy

Competitive Marketplace: The ability to promote and advance competing ideas

Innovation and Engagement: Competition drives creativity and inquiry

Influence: The multiple and significant access points to public elites

Cultural Resources: The rich storehouse of Jewish artifacts, historical memories, and traditional rituals that continue to hold meaning and support the communal enterprise.

  • Over the past quarter of a century, the communal system has transitioned from a social work model to a corporate framework, as a significant power shift has taken place with the depletion of board authority to the growth of management accountability and control. In this transformation of power, the lay-professional equation has also changed.
  • In the past, the presence of interlocking directorates (board members connected by friendship and family across institutional lines) created a type of balance of power and shared responsibility for the overall preservation of the communal order. The system re-enforced the notion of “collective responsibility” and the priority of “communalism” as values that were to be embraced. In today’s marketplace such an orderly “connected” framework has given way to heightened degree of competition and separatism, in part driven by the general society’s fragmentation.
  • Correspondingly, there is a heightened attention to entrepreneurial practice, especially among younger professional leaders, as a way to grow brand and social media penetration. In such a context, decision-making processes and institutional planning are short-circuited in favor of high profile actions.
  • In this toxic environment, institutional performance is often compromised where partisan politics and ideological disagreements have been permitted to infiltrate operational practice. Today, institutions are often no longer protected from these “Jewish Wars.”
  • Broad scale reactions and policy disagreements in connection with specific political issues generate contrarian viewpoints and can generate new institutional actors. Today instead of creating consensus outcomes there has been the emergence of “alternative” institutional expressions to represent contrarian policy viewpoints. We are seeing the growth of competing organizational political voices within the Jewish community as a reaction to the broader cultural and social divides that define America.
  • The issues of racial diversity, cultural sensitivities, and gender engagement are reshaping workplace behaviors, human resource policies and practices, and institutional culture inside and outside of the Jewish communal scene.
  • When no single institution is identified as “owning” an issue or cause, alternative organizing initiatives appear on the communal stage. This occurs especially in settings where there is controversy over the primary organization’s policy positions and/or its actions.
  • Different constituencies can claim the same issue, thereby allowing multiple players to compete for resources and public attention in connection with that market space.
  • When a particular marketplace niche is seen as competitive and financially viable, as in the case of fighting anti-Semitism, one finds the emergence of multiple actors each seeking to engage with this issue. There is a particular intent on the part of these new actors to capture a segment of the communal market, by identifying a specific outcome or alternative strategy.
  • Jewish organizational practice mimics the social mores, structural forms and policy choices found in the general nonprofit culture. On occasion, however, Jewish respondents will employ practices that specifically appeal to Jewish “identity” culture, i.e. creating a distinctive or unique posture designed to appeal to an ethnic Jewish audience.
  • In these times organizational ideology has given way more often than not to institutional survivability, creating in its place a culture of operational maintenance. Sacrificing vision in order to promote sustainability is the new mantra.
  • In connection with ideology, there has been a significant “mission bleed” as organizations have rapidly shifted their “original intent” in order to grow their operational focus. Over the past number of years, an increasing number of Jewish institutions have become the “solely-owned” operation of a particular high-end donor, who is seeking to advance his/her political and communal influence.
  • Similarly, influential, longstanding Jewish nonprofit executives have had occasion to dominate the policy outcomes and program goals of their agencies, as a means of enhancing their power-base.
  • Two competing operational messages are in play today. On the one hand, we find institutional leaders continuing to operate inside a competitive mindset; on the other, there is a growing counter-response, in reaction to the pandemic and from the pressure from current funders to promote a collaborative cultural framework.
  •  Overall, we can anticipate a less transactional, more collaborative relationship between grantors and grantees, with more efficient processes in play creating a higher degree of transparency and a greater emphasis on feedback loops.
  • Since the presence of COVID, Jewish institutions have expanded their social media platforms, offering a broad array of programs and services on-line. We note the nationalization of some organizational models that previously had been identified as geographically-based.

These trend lines are likely to be dominant indictors of communal behavior as we move beyond the pandemic.  However, we need to monitor three primary external characteristics: economic dislocation, political disruption, and cultural conflict as each of these can serve as disruptors in maintaining cohesion and stability within this system.



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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