Enabling the Next Big Jewish Idea


Here’s the full-text (ie., unedited version) of my speech delivered today at the GA plenary on "The Next Generation." It’s also up on Jewcy.com where there’ll hopefully be some interesting discussion happening… Video from my speech is online here.

Every so often, a conversation will arise in Jewish professional circles around "the next big Jewish idea." The question is asked, what’s the next big thing that’s going reinvigorate and renew Jewish life for an increasingly intermarried and disinterested American Jewry? What’s the silver bullet that’s going to save us from our own self-destruction?

Brandeis is currently offering a professorship and a six-figure salary graciously provided by Charles Bronfman to someone who can devise, if not a solution, a pathway towards a solution to this question.

Yet it is my belief that the next big Jewish idea will not be hatched inside a board room. It will not be the result of a research study. It will not come from within an institution at all. Rather, the next big Jewish idea will be the work of a young, independently minded individual seeking to address the needs of his or her own self or his or her own immediate community.

But the next big Jewish idea will not meet institutional funding guidelines – or at least, that’s what the rejection letters will say. It will be for any number of reasons: The project is too local; too global; too narrow; too ambitious; the subject too political; the creators too eccentric. Perhaps they’re more creatively-minded than business-minded and are thus bad at writing grants. Maybe they’re too young, or too idealistic.

And sometimes the grantmaker themselves are so disconnected from the realities of what the Jewish public needs – like the funders who don’t even have a computer on their desks – that you’re done before you’ve even started. Sometimes funders just don’t get it; or they do get it and they feel threatened by it. They’re afraid to give up too much control. They want safer bets.

Whatever the case, Jewish innovators who pursue the non-profit route are generally at the mercy of grantmakers, who often times are setting standards impossible to reach for folks who are just starting out. Funders want a lofty return on investment without ever taking real risks, ignoring the recommendations of even their own advisors, like the sociologist Steven M. Cohen who, in an October 2006 interview advised taking a more open stance to radical thinking, telling JTA "we need more exposure in the Jewish community to views which challenge our own."

For an innovator, the heartbreak accompanying this process can be debilitating. Getting turned down again and again when you believe in what you’re doing so strongly… It’s soul crushing. Exhausted by one failed grant application after the other, many fold up shop before their ideas ever see the light of day.

The next big Jewish idea, in fact, has probably already come and gone, and been shot down by no less than a dozen Jewish grantmaking organizations. And because the innovator will have no resources at his or her disposal with which to continue his project, he will probably walk away from it, crushed and discouraged, and a revolutionary idea that could have transformed American Jewry forever will never come to be.

It’s all too familiar a story. In the past six years, I have encountered countless young Jewish innovators who are engineering incredible projects that will never see the light of day. I have even engineered a number of my own, that are currently flailing to stay above water. Take, for example, my website ShulShopper.com, an online service that enables people to find a place to daven that suits their needs and interests, and to rate and review their local congregations so as to help others find a place that works for them. The YU Commentator called ShulShopper "the biggest revolution in the Jewish community since the internet was erected." Yet the site has remained in beta for nearly a year, with many pieces still broken and unable to be fixed, due to a lack of funding interest.

So where do federations come in?

Federations do some of the most important work in the Jewish community. They feed and clothe people, they support social services, they fund schools. These are things that are necessary and valuable.

Yet it’s no secret that the federation system is in a bind, desperate to maintain its relevancy to younger generations – those who are passionately committed to Jewish life, as well as the disaffected. Few of us out there living independent Jewish lives of our own making have much of an idea as to the value of federations, which we perceive as bureaucratic dinosaurs that stifle creativity rather than engender it, or which otherwise represent narrow interests, and sideline alternative viewpoints.

As Richard Marker wrote for Jewschool in August 2005, "There is a profound disillusionment or frustration with established institutions. They are accurately not perceived as agile, responsive, or innovative. And because they typically have a broad agenda, requiring consensus decision making, involvement within them runs counter to the most current behavior among the most creative or passionate. Once upon a time, patience was sufficient; today, few people are willing to be long term apprentices in Jewish communal life when the rest of life requires and rewards other attributes. Thus, the most interesting and interested younger Jews would much rather associate with a start up or special interest group which reflects them rather than with an established, multipurpose organizations."

And yet we are nonetheless desperate for each other’s attention. Federations want to attract a new generation of donors, and young innovators want support for their projects. Despite our differences, you need us and we need you.

There is a way for us to work together.

Traditionally, federations, like most funding agencies, invite applications from grant-seekers and then select among them. This allocation process certainly has its merits. But there’s a downside as well; in fact several. One is that the selection process is imperfect; second it can be biased; and third, it breeds suspicion, alienation, and disgruntlement among both grant recipients and those who are rejected.

There have been some wonderful programs that federations have supported, in particular Bikkurim, the incubator for new Jewish ideas, and the 6 Points Fellowship, which provides grants to new Jewish artists, that have been a boon to Jewish innovation. These programs provide precisely the type support which startup initiatives need in order to get themselves off the ground, and they are commendable and worthy of applause. I am proud to have been involved with several Bikkurim-supported initiatives as well as 6 Points as both a consultant and a contractor.

But perhaps these programs go too far in some respects, and not far enough in others. For starters, they are highly competitive, and offer only a few slots annually. Furthermore, they require participation levels that may be too much for individuals who are working a full-time job while running their project on the side. In addition, they bring the constraint of institutional politics to bear on participants’ endeavors, imposing artificial limitations on creative thinking. In other words, they’re not for everyone.

Let’s imagine a different way of doing business. Federations provide for the infrastructure, the environment, the resources to allow for creative individuals and groups to grow in a way that requires no invidious distinctions or a process of selection.

Rather than a system of gatekeepers and shepherds, which discriminate and exclude based on whichever criteria, I believe what we need is an open infrastructure that lends itself to innovation.

We are overdue for establishing an open marketplace for Jewish ideas, bootstrapped by communal funds. Or as Jonathan Sarna called it in a recent JTA interview, what we need is more Jewish venture capitalism. "We only have to look at the high-tech industry," said Sarna, "to see that all ideas don’t all pan out, but all you need is one Google or Mapquest to justify a whole lot of ideas that don’t go anywhere."

The Jewish community was intended as a meritocracy. In the era of Judges, our representatives were chosen based on the merit of their Torah and their conduct – how much their words and deeds resonated with others. Likewise, in chassidut, a leader is chosen based on his merit, his followers developing a sense of dvekut derived from the inspiration they find in their rebbe’s teachings.

Likewise we should let the market decide what "the next big Jewish idea" is, based on its merit and its resonance with the community.

Certainly, there ought to be some type of criteria or some sort of way of judging which projects truly add value to both the individual and communal Jewish experience. However, that criteria should ultimately be determined by the public affected by these projects. Furthermore, funders should have greater tolerance for failure. Success breeds success but failure often happens because great ideas don’t get the encouragement or the resources they need.

So here’s what I propose:

1. Create resource hubs for small to mid size local Jewish organizations at every federation. Organize free networking events and public seminars.

2. Build an online archive of webinars on non-profit management, marketing, fundraising, technology, and so forth. Enable innovators – who, again, are probably working full-time jobs in addition to saving the Jews – by letting them learn at their own pace, whenever they want, from wherever they want. Empower innovators by producing enriching, informative, and impactful media, and by making it freely available online.

3. Provide fiscal sponsorship, ie., the ability to take tax deductible donations, to any applicant meeting basic criteria, thereby enabling any initiative to get off and running.

4. Develop tools and resources that are universal and reusable. For example, instead of giving grants to individual Jewish orgs needing to develop websites, develop and deploy a hosted content management system that specifically addresses the needs of Jewish organizations.

5. And finally, and most importantly, create a Jewish Robinhood Fund. The Robinhood Fund is a website that facilitates microlending and microgiving. Users browse the site, find causes they’re excited about, and are able, right there on the spot, to donate or lend money to that cause. Think of it as an online, interactive Slingshot Journal – one that provides access to both grant-makers and grant-seekers. Not only should federations embrace this model, but they should match funds where possible.

By laying the groundwork for innovation, by enabling innovators to get up and running, and by not discriminating based upon the institution’s own objectives, but rather by giving all ideas an opportunity to flourish, federations can provide an invaluable communal service that will elicit the respect and appreciation of young innovators and their constituents alike, so that they can say, "Ah! This is what federations do for me. This is why they’re important, and this is why they deserve our support."

In failing to do so, the distance between today’s institutions and tomorrow’s young Jewish leaders, will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

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