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  • Writer's pictureSteven Windmueller

A Letter To My Students

Dear Zschool Alums, At the outset of COVID, in the spring of 2020, I shared a note with my former students offering some insights concerning this new reality that was about to strike our lives. Today, I am focusing on where we are and will likely be as we move past this pandemic. Multiple “impact factors” are today impacting the third sector, including:[1]

  1. Technology (the impact AI and other new “Nano” resources).

  2. Post-COVID realities (health issues-social challenges-institutional transitions/downsizing).

  3. DEI (Diversity-Equity-Inclusion) with litigious behavior on the increase.[2]

  4. Workplace Transitions (working from home; the big “quit” as folks leave the workforce; difficulty in reconnecting and reclaiming office culture).

  5. Long-Term Sustainability as agencies struggle to attract donors.

In a recent Forbes report, the following assessment appears: Declining donor trust and stagnant middle-class growth create a perfect storm for nonprofits who lack clear direction, fail to collaborate and struggle to demonstrate impact. Beyond these trigger elements, additional themes including the realities of climate change as it impacts how camps, schools, and community centers think about and plan for outdoor programming and scheduling, are all playing out. In the aftermath of COVID and in the midst of deep political divisions, the crisis of mental health and its effects on staff and lay leaders appears to be accelerating. A new level of toxicity and incivility seems increasingly prevalent in both the workplace and the board room! Inside, the Jewish world we are seeking the effects of the pandemic and the changing demographic and cultural character of our community. Yet, even beyond these factors, one can identify other challenging concerns:

  • Divisions over Israel, as framed by one professional leader as “ A don’t tell, don’t ask mentality is in play, where folks would prefer to simply not address the Israel agenda.”

  • A decline in passion and communal activism, as described by one professional, “Where one sees a post-Covid ‘burn out’ and a type of collective resignation, questioning the meaning and value of our work.”

In more recent years as part of the existing hyper-political tensions, there has emerged a type of moral crusade targeting certain Jewish leaders, particular Jewish organizations, and specific policy positions. These critics have directed their anger at Jewish liberal initiatives, the failure of Diaspora Jewish institutions to appropriately defend Israel and to effectively counter contemporary anti-Semitism. In a newly published volume, Betrayal: The Failure of American Jewish Leadership, many of these criticisms are collectively brought forward, as referenced in this quote:[4] U.S. Jewish establishment consists of weak, politicized bureaucrats who ‘seem more loyal to a progressive ideology than to the safety of Jews.’ Excerpts from a recent survey appear below, where some of you recently offered your concerns and emerging challenges:

  • Certain communal issues are polarizing, and as a result, there is a distinctive loss of shared energy.

  • In some settings, the quality of lay-professional relationships has deteriorated, while in other situations, a renewed respect for the role of the professional.

  • How technology has both enhanced the nonprofit work environment but also contributed to new operational pressures and the loss of personal connections.

  • The demise of voluntarism: fewer volunteers with a less dedicated and engaged base of volunteers.

  • The unevenness of Jewish professional training and experience.

  • Workplace settings are often toxic, creating the ‘Big Quit’ leaving positions unfilled, resulting in burn-out.

  • Workplace motivational challenges associated with keeping staff engaged and happy.

  • Financial pressures are limiting creativity and organizational success.

  • Competition accelerates in a tight economy.

  • Disaffected members are walking away and “entitled” individuals are exacting demands on the community and its professionals.

  • Gender issues, diversity concerns, and inclusion practices remain in play.

  • Lack of clarity over institutional directions, due to competing internal power centers.

In some of the findings taken from surveys of Jewish nonprofits, one notes the financial and membership challenges faced by some synagogues, the changing face of specific organizations and agencies, as we find some pivoting in order to change mission and mandate, and the growing intersection of “religion and state” where agencies are taking on the operational services of synagogues and where congregations are introducing communal-type programming, as institutions scramble to serve the changing expectations and needs of their members. If one had only read through to this last paragraph, you would only walk away demoralized by the collapsing state of the Jewish world. In reality, there exists a counterpoint to some, if not most of this reporting. Namely, there is an extraordinary level of creative energy, some of which many of you are bringing to the communal table. The Ruderman Foundation studies on American Jewish communal trends offer some significant, positive insights regarding the state of Jewish identity and engagement.[5] Let’s examine the road forward!

  • In complex and unsettled times, the resourcefulness that we can identify within our community involving innovative text study opportunities, promoting new spiritual learning practices, expanding cultural experiences, and uncovering examples of structural reimagination of the Jewish enterprise, all represent exciting possibilities!

  • We are in this endeavor for the long term, so it is both natural and necessary, to endure both setbacks and triumphs. History, we are readily reminded, is not a linear experience but rather a disjointed record of human struggle and conquest, of loss and opportunity, and of powerlessness and power.

  • The power of Judaism is that if did not exist, we would have had to invent it. There is something both mystical and essential about the Jewish experience in history, as we are constantly reminded about the capacity of Jews to transform their existential situations, whether employing the power of belief or their capacity to reimagine themselves. The mystical notion of “hope” seems ever present within Judaism.

  • We have partners, both inside of our communal orbit and beyond, who are prepared to help shoulder the existing burdens, assisting us in identifying the opportunities to reinvent the narrow spaces in which we may find ourselves, and dreaming along with us about the possibilities of tomorrow.

Remember that the Windmueller door is always open to you! Wishing each of you a fulfilling, meaningful and festive New Year, Steven

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