This is only my second Jewish Funders Network conference, but I have noticed at least a mini-trend: Each year, a young innovator with the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of hundreds of potential donors seems to blow a golden opportunity to impress some of the biggest funders in the Jewish world.
Last year, it was Storahtelling, the innovative organization run by Amichai Lau-Lavie that takes stories from the Torah and gives them a contemporary context by telling them over in performance art pieces that, yes, sometime include cross-dressing.
But given the chance to wow the Jewish mega-elite at last year’s conference in Atlanta, Lau-Lavie and company put on a re-telling of the book of Jonah at the Marcus Aquarium that, according to general consensus, went belly up like a big fish.
I’m a huge Storahtelling fan, but I walked away from the performance feeling like I had been spit out by something colossal that I just didn’t understand. But at least I stayed until the end of the program, which is more than I can say for a lot of folks.
The tank in front of the fish tanks still has not been forgotten by most, and for all the wrong reasons, and regularly comes up in conversation. I have it on good authority that JFN officials were still a little shell-shocked and therefore nervous about this year’s art performance.
This year, though, it was a young hot-shot academic who missed the boat.
David Shneer, the director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, is regarded by some as the next big thing in Jewish education. At 36, the author of several books on Judaism, including “Queer Jews,” has been described by Tikkun magazine as a “Taboo-breaking scholar,” and by Jewcy.com as a “new Jewish superhero.”
But Tuesday, given the chance to show up mega-philanthropists Raya Strauss and Leonid Nevzlin, as well as Israel’s Minister of the Diaspora, Isaac Herzog, in a round table discussion, Shneer sunk.
Instead of engaging in conversation, he pulled out what must have been a 20-page speech. He read it, and fili-busted.
It wasn’t so much that his ideas didn’t sound that much different from those put forth in Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman’s 2005 report “Beyond Distancing,” which describes American Jews as alienated from Israel.
The big problem for many in the crowd was that even when the discussion’s moderator asked Shneer to stop reading and engage in discussion, the young gun refused, and kept on reading.
This elicited audible groans from the crowd. The well-respected Jewish philanthropy professional sitting next to me called the professor “arrogant” and a few other names that I can’t repeat on a family blog. One funder stood up, grabbed a microphone set up for audience questions at the end and scolded him publicly, “It’s not what you are saying that is upsetting us, it is your behavior!”
Shneer was eventually halted, but there was little time left for the discussion JFN had planned.
At a cocktail reception later in the evening, I spoke with Shneer and asked him about the feedback he had received throughout the day.
“Ninety-five percent positive,” he told me.
In fairness, the head of one non-profit did refer to him as a “rising star” at that same reception as she pointed him out to me. But the general response I heard about Shneer was… um… less than 95 percent good.