Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

The New Organizing Models: Implications for the Jewish Marketplace

Is it time for the Jewish community to revisit its organizing principles? All around us we are beginning to see the introduction of various alternative models of organizing.  The existing communal and religious framework has been based on two 19th Century organizational frameworks, denominationalism and federalism.

This legacy system served American Jewry well, offering choice in connection with religious belief and practice, while providing a representative form of participation and practice. The federalist structure offered separation of powers, representative governance, consensus-based decision making, and interlocking directors. It also introduced a competitive market environment, where one could select and support particular organizational options.

This 19th Century framework represented a top-down system involving a national “governing” unit with regional and local operational components designed to support and carry forward its general mission on a localized basis. Some community-based expressions of this model, i.e., federations and synagogues, are independently operated constituencies, while others represent nationally-managed programs.

In a 21st Century environment where choice, diversity, and autonomy are all critical indicators of the centrality of personal beliefs and practice, the existing organizing models fail to appeal or apply to many constituencies. If power is being seen as shifting from the collective to the individual, then such constructs as denominations and umbrella systems would seem highly problematic in serving our emerging individualized, grassroots constituencies. In a timeframe were trust and authority are suspect, it becomes increasingly critical to revisit the organizing premise around which one builds or constructs community.

Indeed, communal decision making and planning strategic outcomes will now have a new partner, Artificial Intelligence.  AI should be able to frame various outcomes and offer different scenarios as we examine contemporary realities.

The imprint of the broader society on communal norms and practice will continue to redefine and ultimately lead to the reconfiguration of the nonprofit sector in general and the Jewish communal model in particular. Economic, climatic, and cultural factors are each contributing to this new reality. Equity, inclusion and diversity will likewise create new pressures and challenges in connection with our communal restructuring and trigger a heightened level of sensitivity and accountability.

In a period of profound social unrest, the communal enterprise will need to be vigilant in connection with the politics of hate. Operating almost as a counterweight to the ideals of inclusion, we are experiencing within our society a significant pushback in policies and practices designed to isolate, marginalize and minimize the LQBTQ community, eliminate abortions and discount various minority communities. Within this social mix, one finds a new level of anti-Semitic expression and various forms of overt actions directed against Jewish constituencies. How as a community we will be expected to respond is likely be particularly to the Jewish communal order!

Contributing to the changing state of the Jewish world, institutions must contend with contemporary cultural wars, involving race, history, and language.  The imprint of these broader concerns has and will continue to play out within our community. Historically, the Jewish communal model has served as a representation of a Jewish Ashkenazi liberal orientation, where Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish perspectives and culture were visibly absent. In an environment of inclusion, Jews of Color, Jews by Choice, and LGBTQ Jews must be seen as integral to the evolving communal landscape.

Individualized choice, particularized interests and a distributive agenda would suggest a bottom-up framework will be critical toward building a new communal order. Where the power of numbers and the centrality of consensus action defined our earlier system, at this moment, the power dynamics appear to be fundamentally different, where the contemporary emphasis will be on incorporating underserved and underrepresented constituencies.

Exploring New Models:

A whole different framework for organizing appears to be at hand. The characteristics in this current iteration of community organizing are framed by a different and evolving model of practice.[1]

  • Understanding the root causes of issues (context)
  • Introducing collaborative decision-making and group-based problem-solving (inclusion)
  • Focusing efforts on specific issues (personalization)
  • Actively engaging participation from various groups and organizations within the community (democratization)
  • Developing and maintaining capacity and power to produce lasting change (sustainability)
  • Providing feedback to the community (engagement)
  • Most of the contemporary literature on community organizing involves “engaging and empowering people with the purpose of increasing the influence of groups historically underrepresented in policies and decision making that affect their lives.” [2]
  • A set of principles are driving the new organizing models. One such idea associated with engagement involves organizing people in order to enable them to turn their leadership into power.[3]  Today, one organizes people to build power, where strong relationships are the key to capacity building. Everything begins at the base, where the goals and outcomes are established through this bottom-up power grid.
  • With this new framework, the first question becomes: Who are my people? Not, what are my issues? This organizing strategy then begins with folks telling their story.[4] The personal becomes the collective!
  • The second component involves creating structures that distribute power while evaluating the various actors’ leadership skills, resources, and access points.
  • A third element involves strategizing by turning resources into power in order to achieve established outcomes. This is accomplished in part by building relationships and constructing teams. Everyone and every relationship can contribute to the power equation.

Three Models:

In the Snowflake Model, leadership is distributed, no one person or group holds the power.[5] This organizing approach is composed of interconnected set of teams, where responsibility is shared, and structures are designed to create mutual accountability.

Community Action Model: The community action model is based on the theory of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educationalist who integrated educational practice with liberation from oppressive conditions. Freire’s work emphasized dialogue, praxis, the grounding of education in lived experiences, and heightening people’s consciousness to enhance the belief that they have the power to transform reality, specifically with respect to addressing oppression.[6]

Interest-Based Models: Ethnic and racial communities are increasingly decoupling their organizing around specific pods or action areas, including political advocacy, social service delivery, and cultural and religious services.[7]

With all of these approaches, there is a particular emphasis on democratization, the distribution of power, and a commitment to empowerment. Each of these models segments the delivery of information and services into interest areas by offering participants more direct avenues for their specialized forms of engagement. In these systems of organizing, symbolic and elite elements of leadership give way to authentic, personalized and distributive forms of activism.

These approaches are focused on community development issues that involve needs-based, goals-based and asset-based initiatives.[8] All of which are constructed to assess alternative ways to deliver change.


It would appear likely that we will see various versions of one or more of these organizing models being introduced into the Jewish world. Some traditional institutions may employ some of the elements of these schemes in democratizing and reorganizing their constituencies. Various boutique, start-up groups may apply these principles when introducing new programs or experimenting with different organizing initiatives.









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.