Op-Ed: A time to innovate

NEW YORK (JTA) — Professor Jonathan Sarna recently wrote an article titled "Lessons from the Past" encouraging the Jewish community to hold onto its core values in spite of the current economic downturn. He recommended maintaining our emphasis on innovation and creativity, re-engaging smaller donors and increasing transparency within our organizations.

Gary Wexler commented that if Michael Steinhardt, the megaphilanthropist, had put forth the recommendations, “by now the BlackBerrys, e-mails, instant messages, phones and blogs would have been buzzing, the committee meetings set, the professionals sent scurrying and the communal electricity popping.”

While I am not Michael Steinhardt, I believe that Sarna’s message is an important one.

Based on my own experience serving the Jewish community, one of Judaism’s greatest strengths is its ability to evolve to fit the needs of its diverse community. The Jewish community must not lose sight of this core value simply because the stock market has fallen.

Judaism has always been a tradition of multiple perspectives. Historically it has been said that the Torah has 70 faces. Today, with countless ways to define oneself as Jewish, the number of Jewish perspectives has multiplied exponentially. Our diversity, although sometimes challenging, gives the Jewish community great strength and depth. It has been our ability to incorporate many perspectives and adapt to the ever-changing needs of our community that has enabled Judaism to remain relevant for thousands of years.

With the evolving face of America at large, it is no surprise that the Jewish community also has ever corresponding, shifting needs. Talented, innovative individuals have stepped up by creating organizations and projects, and pushing a culture of change that serves these evolving needs. For example, when Hillel was no longer relevant for students on college campus, Richard Joel revitalized and rebranded Hillel, re-conceptualizing the role it could play for students on campus; Joel’s vision for Hillel was the reason I signed onto the leadership of Hillel.

When traditional synagogue communities were not meeting the changing needs of young professionals seeking a place of worship and community, leaders such as Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum  and many others around the country created open and inclusive independent minyanim serving as community centers of prayer, education, social action and culture for contemporary Jews.

As I write in my recent book, "Hope, Not Fear," many Jewish leaders have bemoaned the phenomena of younger Jews not joining traditional Jewish institutions as a sign of decline in North American Jewish life. The fact that young Jews are not affiliating in the “traditional” way indicates there is something wrong with our institutions, not that there is something wrong with our youth. We have to let go of the old ways of defining what it means to be an “involved Jew” and begin to look to the kind of involvement that today’s Jews are seeking. 

Innovation has the power to bring about hope and renaissance within the Jewish community. New ideas infuse life into the Jewish community and empower Jews of all ages to become personally invested in Judaism. It does not take an established organization or a reputable name to come up with a unique and relevant Jewish initiative. In fact, smaller start-up organizations are often better equipped to intimately reach local, niche communities in a way that larger organizations cannot.

I was happy to see recently from The 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations that I am not alone in thinking that innovation and renaissance occur through both large-scale programs and smaller initiatives. Within the last 10 years, more than 300 Jewish organizations have been created to serve what they see as unmet needs within the Jewish community. Despite their diverse agendas, it is inspiring to see all of these organizations working to make the Jewish community a better place. Together these organizations serve the multiple perspectives of our unique Jewish community and each represents an important piece of our collective Jewish identity. 

The diverse needs of Jewish community will continue to evolve in the future, regardless of the state of the economy. While it is important for those in the position of influence, like Michael Steinhardt and myself, to encourage innovation, it is up to all of us, as members of the Jewish community, to make sure that these creative leaders have the support they need to be successful. We need to make sure that the bleak economic forecast doesn’t diminish our optimism for a bright future within the Jewish community.

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