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HUC dean says calamity is upon us, Fundermentalist says: ‘Not so fast’

Steven Windmueller, the dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and its chair of Jewish communal service, has a lengthy outline of what he sees as the impact of the economic downturn on the Jewish communal landscape.

Much of what he discusses has been covered on these pages, but it is a worthwhile read and one of the first times that I have seen anyone take a step back to look at what we have seen over the past year. The article was published by the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ (JCPA), where Windmueller is a fellow.

(Hat tip to Dan at ejewishphilanthropy for pointing this story out.)

This is Windmueller’s basic outline:

The full impact of the current economic crisis may not be felt for years. In the midst of it, core institutions are being fundamentally reshaped and individual lifestyles reconstructed. These economic challenges threaten the existing infrastructure of the American Jewish community, leading to a new order of institutions and leaders.

The changes are already having a social and psychological impact on American Jewry. For many older Jews, many of their core institutional patterns of personal engagement have been altered. For younger Jews, the dislocations may foster opportunities for further experimentation and disengagement from the traditional patterns.

The long-term outcome of the transformation is likely to be a far weaker, less cohesive American Jewish community. As the economy moves beyond the current crisis and as institutions adjust, a new leadership will also likely emerge that will need to draw on the lessons of this period. The "new" American Jewish scene they will inherit will display a smaller communal and religious system with fewer resources.

A communal system weakened by scandal and economic dislocation will inevitably be less powerful. The internal and organizational changes will recast the role of Jews within the larger society as well.

I’m going to agree with Windmueller on the first point. As I believe that right now we are just seeing the start of a contraction of the Jewish community, and that we likely will see the landscape take a new shape over the coming years as we sort through the rubble of what is left.

But I think it is far too soon to say that the economic downturn has already caused a dissociation from Jewish life by older and younger Jews. It is true that services for the elderly may be affected as organizations cut their budgets, but my guess is that those funders — and especially Jewish federations — that prioritize care for the elderly will make sure that they are taken care of before cutting some of the other causes that they may fund.

Perfect example: The Weinberg foundation, the country’s largest Jewish-centric foundation. While, yes, it is cutting its allocations over the next two years and there will be less money to go around for new projects, it is honoring all of the multi-year grants that it has made through the next two years, to the tune of more than $179 million.

Federations are not likely to abandon their elderly.

As for younger organizations? Yes, there is less money out there for them now. But there was an un-tempered, unmanaged growth of Jewish nonprofits over the past 10 years that saw the formation of dozens if not hundreds of organizations that, while good intentioned, were simply not well run and that overlapped in mission with other nonprofits. Simply, we created a small nonprofit sector that was more luxury than necessity. Will there be a trimming of that sector? One can only hope.

Which leads me to Windmueller’s third assertion: that the long-term outcome of the transformation is likely to be a far weaker, less cohesive American Jewish community.

This does not have to be true.

I’ve been asked several times recently both publicly and privately what I thought the Jewish community would look like in five years.

And while the answer is really, “I don’t know. No one does,” I think one of two things will happen here.

Either this contraction we are seeing now will happen sloppily as a raw attrition of the Jewish community occurs, and those organizations that are well run will continue to thrive, while the rest of the communal world gathers as much funds as it can until it simply runs out. Good organizations will die, bad organizations that can fund raise will survive, and lots of organizations will just manage to keep open their doors because they can generate enough sentimentality to raise just enough money to make payroll.

If that happens, then yes, we will have a weaker Jewish communal world on our hands and it will be a shame.

But there is a second option.

The Jewish community could sit down as a group and really map out what it now has in terms of infrastructure. It could take a hard look at what it needs as a Jewish community. And it could match what it has versus what it needs and could start to make very difficult decisions as a whole about what needs to go, what needs to stay, what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be created.

We’re seeing now that one benefit of the current environment is that it makes it easier to make hard decisions. All one needs to do is survey the carnage of organizational layoffs for proof. But laying off a dozen lower level employees is a much easier decision for an executive director and a board to make than the real organizational self awareness it would take for an executive director to step back and ask, “is my organization worthwhile and necessary?” or for a funder of a niche organization to sit back and say, “could my money be better spent elsewhere?”

But if somehow the Jewish world — professionals, funders and observers — could start to think about a summit to talk about itself honestly, we might just be able to emerge from this mess leaner, meaner and stronger.

And if we can do that, then Windmueller’s last assessment — “a communal system weakened by scandal and economic dislocation will inevitably be less powerful. The internal and organizational changes will recast the role of Jews within the larger society as well” — will certainly be proven false.

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