How Can Jewish Institutions Adapt to the Pandemic Revolution?

In my last piece, I explained why the Jewish community is in the midst of a “Pandemic Revolution.” Twenty-first-century economic and social changes have suggested that our community will be courting a new generation of Jews with different modes of engagement, operating with fewer resources, and managing amid a destabilized political and social environment.

Will our traditional organizations survive this moment, and are they likely to be responsive to this new generation’s tastes and interests?

Based on the current recession, some of our communal structures will leave the scene or face major reductions in size. Cultural institutions, for example, may not survive in an economy that focuses primary resources on core human needs. Institutions without alternative income streams, sufficient financial reserves, and a fiscal gameplan are also unlikely to survive. Already, more than 1,000 Jewish organizations and synagogues received over $500 million in government loans as part of the federal stimulus packages introduced this spring. Yet, despite this financial assistance, numerous Jewish groups have been forced to lay off personnel.

The institutions that do have the financial means to survive aren’t off the hook — they must adapt to younger generations of Jews and the new “Jewish poor,” a cohort of older Jews, young families and singles adversely impacted by the recession. This cohort of Jews may resist the former model of Jewish engagement — holding multiple memberships at institutions that addressed niche interests. If the mergers and downsizings from the 2008 and 2020 recessions are any indications, paying to belong to synagogues and JCCs may no longer be tenable.

How, then, should Jewish institutions change their modus operandi to remain relevant, funded, and inclusive? Our organizations must revisit the core values that defined twentieth-century Judaism to create a coherent twenty-first-century response. Judaism must now be understood and interpreted as a “moveable feast,” where we adjust our institutions to evolving economic circumstances, cultural realities and social forces.

How, then, should Jewish institutions change to remain relevant, funded, and inclusive?

Here are just a few trends to watch to assess where the “feast” has moved:

  • Changing Numbers. Community requires a significant number of constituents to thrive and prosper. The Jewish community is undergoing a significant demographic transition as our core population base changes through assimilation, aging and atrophy.
  • Changing Generations. Generations reflect different interests, lifestyle choices, and cultural tastes. Who we were as a twentieth-century constituency will not be how we will behave in a twenty-first-century environment. How we engage a new generation will be the defining test for organizations after the pandemic.
  • Changing Needs. As cultural themes, generational behaviors, and social norms shift, so do our needs. Because our organizations aim to serve communal needs, assessing generational trends will allow us to see if an existing institution is properly serving the masses. 

But identifying the need for change is one thing — acting on it is another. We will need leaders to be bold and creative, challenging historical assumptions and past practices. To adapt to a new generation, leaders must introduce innovations to learning and living. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Ditch the Physical. As COVID-19 has proven, buildings do not define our community. Our institutions should realize that we can shed many of our physical plants, allowing us to shift the costs of operating facilities to the costs of growing programs to adapt to new needs. Of course, there are cultural, emotional and historic connections to our physical locations, but that is not the central tenet of who we are or will become!
  • Excise Sexism and Racism. This new generation of Jews largely prioritizes inclusion. To cater to them, our institutions should ensure that women are accorded equal access and recognition in achieving leadership positions at comparable pay. Our institutions must also welcome and embrace Jews of color, Jews of differing sexual orientation and Jews by choice, so that all may fully participate in the community. 
  • Maximize Use of Resources. As the recession has proven, resources are finite, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be negotiable and moveable. Flexible funding will require donors to become our essential partners, helping us identify collective priorities and chart the new essentials.
  • Promote Collaboration. New generations of Jews are seeking coherence in their lifestyle choices, pushing back against separation in favor of a collective experience, where culture and community are bound together. Cross-institutional and cross-cultural learning are essential to this new generation. Integrative organizations will thrive in this changing environment.

As the Jewish community experiences the “Pandemic Revolution,” leaders will need to adapt to these new winds of change, modeling the capacity to provide individual forms of Jewish expression and promoting new and exciting avenues of collective participation. We are committed to not only responding to the question, “So, Why be Jewish?” but also to the operational principle of “How do we be Jewish?”  

To all the communal disrupters and individuals who are prepared to take us in a different direction — this is your moment. Experimentation and adaptation will be the language and the content of this new order. By constructing avenues for Jewish learning, re-building conversations, and recreating community, we can invite Jews of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to the table as we construct a new Jewish paradigm.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.


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