Archive for September, 2008


On Jewish Innovation: Social Entrepreneurs and the Framing of the Zera’im Movement

September 9, 2008

On my flight this morning from New York to Atlanta an interesting article in the New York Times caught my attention.  The article, authored by Carl Zimmer, examines the recent scientific debate regarding the impact of the introduction of exotic natural species into existing ecosystems.  Whereas much of the dominant scientific thinking on this topic has been that exotic introductions cause mass extinctions of species that might not have otherwise faced extinction, recent research published by Dov Sax, an ecologist at Brown University, and Steven Gaines, a marine biologist at University of California – Santa Barbara, assert a different conclusion. Summarizing this debate, Zimmer writes:

“Exotic species receive lots of attention and create lots of worry. Some scientists consider biological invasions among the top two or three forces driving species into extinction.  But Dr. Sax, Dr. Gaines and several other researchers argues that attitudes about exotic species are too simplistic. While some invasions are indeed devastating, the often do not set off extinctions. They can even spur the evolution of new diversity.”

Interesting – but what does this have to do with Jewish innovation?

Well, back to why I was on a plane in the first place.  The reason I was up in New York was to attend a daylong consultation on Jewish social entrepreneurship co-hosted by the Lippman Kanfer Institute at JESNA in partnership with United Jewish Communities.  The consult brought together a substantial number of social entrepreneurs, funders (in both the federation and foundation communities) and other individuals who work with, support or encourage social entrepreneurship in the Jewish community.  Filling the large auditorium on the first floor of the Kraft Center at Columbia University and spreading out throughout the building for break-out sessions and side-conversations, the attendees generated the type of energy that is typical when a group of like-minded, passionate Jewish professionals and volunteers come together to frame common questions and seek common solutions. While not everyone involved in the world of Jewish innovation was in the room, a critical mass was there, and it symbolized an important step in the continued development of the Jewish innovation movement.

I choose the word “movement” carefully, and not without thoughtful consideration.  In concurrence with some of the remarks made by the hosts of the consult, I too think it is time we frame not only critical questions about Jewish social entrepreneurship (some of those questions were ably identified by the attendees of the consult’s wrap-up session), but we also need to frame its language as well.  And most importantly we need to thoughtfully consider the movement’s place in the continued evolution of the global Jewish community.  But we should not be limited in the framing what lies ahead, we also need to recognize what is already in front of us – a movement in Jewish life that crosses generations, denominations, languages and nationalities. It is a movement that, like other movements in Jewish history is responding not only to a world of Jewish needs, but is also emblematic of a world of Jewish desires. In its nascent stage, it is a movement that benefits from energy and sometimes suffers from excessive self-importance.  But even with its subtle growing pains, this movement is nonetheless growing rapidly, substantially and importantly.

What do we call this movement of social entrepreneurial diversity?  I admit that I find the term “social entrepreneur” to be one that belies the Jewish essence we need to ascribe to it. And I think that, like other Jewish movements in the past, we must find a name that begins to communicate what its fundamental Jewish conception is about.  Because in naming, we begin to create a common understanding of the Jewish act of creation of which we are collectively partaking.

In the search for a name, we seek the essence of that which we will name – that which it is “really about.”  When I think about the essence of Jewish social entrepreneurship, I think it in terms of a manifestation of the planting of seeds of Jewish innovation in our communities.  Seeds that can be planted inside the framework of existing organizations or in new formal and informal organizations.  Seeds that help grow into the Jewish fruits that nourish our communities, help provide shade for those who need a form of Jewish sheltering and provide the important resources and materials of which our communities are built.  These seed sometimes are planted deliberately in one place, or are planted in another place that is more hospitable than all others. Sometimes those seeds are blown across landscapes, finally rooting in the most unexpected or out-of-the-way places.  Some seeds are nurtured and succeed in their natural form of growth, where as others, because of the adversity of the conditions are not destined to grow much at all, instead yielding to the consequences of natural (or contrived) selection.

So for my own purposes, I have started to refer to the movement of Jewish social innovation as the Zera’im movement.  In my own, admittedly more simplistic understanding, it is representative of the way the seeds of Jewish innovation are spreading and developing and the manner in which they are cultivated and understood.

And like the debate referenced in the New York Times article about the impact of human influence on bio-diversity, I think as the Zera’im movement further develops we will need to struggle with its implications, both positive and negative. Will the diversity of innovation and cross-pollinating strengthen us (presumably) or bring about the death knell for certain longstanding institutions (preferably not)?  We need to recognize that early in this movement’s history, data maybe inconclusive and anecdotal evidence will suffer from a certain degree of personal bias.

Rather than posit my own reasoning on these implications (in order to defer to those with more experienced minds on this topic), I pose five key questions that the members, framers, and students of the Zera’im movement will need to encounter as it expands in size, influence and impact in the Jewish world.

1.    As social entrepreneurs and instigators of Jewish social innovation are more frequently recognized and encouraged in the ‘organized’ Jewish world (and correspondingly receiving a larger share of community resources), how do we make sure the migration of attention, energy and resources don’t result in the diminishment or extinction of existing (and critical) Jewish infrastructure?

2.    While we continue to look outside the Jewish community for comparable community and business models for supporting social innovation, how do we continue to frame and focus the concept of social innovation “in a Jewish context” that grounds the movement in Jewish history, knowledge and ethics?

3.    In recognizing the way social innovators view themselves within their communities, how do we create positive patterns and approaches to community engagement that foster the development of new cadres of innovators who choose to innovate in the Jewish world (whether outside or inside existing institutions)?

4.    Recognizing that we need to recruit a greater number of social innovators to hold volunteer/lay leadership roles within larger institutionalized Jewish organizations, how can we simultaneously educate and train our existing lay leadership (who admittedly do not perceive themselves as social innovators) to engage and embrace these agents of innovation and change?

5.    Without erring on the side of over-institutionalizing the systems of Jewish innovation, how will we nonetheless develop a common set of language, practices and understandings that not only support the expansion of the movement, but also inculcate younger generations of Jews to sustain the Zeraim movement in the future?

Those are some heavy questions, and require some heavy consideration. Bt like any movement, we need to continue to focus on the “move” while keeping an eye on what is “me(a)nt” by it. And events like the JESNA/UJC consult in New York help do both – creating networks in which movement is initiated, while also creating dialogue that helps frame greater understanding of the movement itself.

Similar to the understanding of the challenges of biodiversity (higlighted in the NYT article referenced above), as the seeds of Jewish innovation and the Zera’im movement continue to flourish, we need to continue to marvel at their diversity, while guarding against their unintended negative implications in the Jewish world. Because these seeds are not just the seeds of social entrepreneurs, but also the seeds of our collective belief in a Jewish future… a Jewish future that transcends any one innovator, entrepreneur or movement, but is enriched by them all.


Memo to the (Federation) File: The Morning After – Way After

September 4, 2008

Recently I attended a Saturday evening social event hosted by the Young Leadership Council (YLC) of the Atlanta Federation. The theme was a Bar/Bat Mitzvah throwback party with all the accompaniments – mini hotdogs included (although it is hard to imagine many of the party-goes actually had Duran Duran played at the B’nai Mitzvah party, well… many people other than me).  Regardless of what role you believe Federation should have in community engagement, it is hard not to get excited about events like this… seeing hundreds of young Jewish professionals gathering in a social setting – talking, smiling and moving to the music. From the youngest to the oldest, there were diverse individuals with two overarching bonds – being Jewish and being together.

But more than the feeling – the fundamentals of the evening were solid. There was some subtle but good branding, although I suspect that the education messaging might have been lost on many of the attendees (at least after they had a few drinks).  And unlike the tendency at so many Jewish events, there was no “ask” other than to bring one or two items of canned or dried food for the local Kosher food pantry.  By the time my wife and I left the party (at the same time it seemed the more hip attendees were arriving) there was a 50-60 person line deep to get in.  Now you just don’t see that at many events where Federations convene young adults.  Rather than trying to have young Jews meet Federation on its terms, the Atlanta Federation was meeting them on their terms. In their part of town and in a way in which they wanted to be met, these Jews were being engaged in a personally relevant way. They might not have been educated about community, and they might not have been empowered to make change – but they were certainly engaged. And that is really exciting.

But unfortunately, that was the easy part.

The hard part is the planning, managing and evaluation of all that needs to happen after an event like the one I just described.  And the challenge is best captured in a comment that was made by a friend as we walked out of the party that evening.  Looking at the long line of waiting attendees, and with the ringing of the evening revelry in his ears, he turned to me and said “really great evening, but I wonder what will happen the morning after.”

Interesting question – but one that needs to be coupled with a section question:

Which morning after?

Certainly on the morning immediately following the engagement event certain things should happen. But I am not certain any of those things should be expected of the attendees. The community professionals need to use dynamic technologies to rapidly and responsibly follow-up with the attendees, with a thank- you email, a link to some of the evening’s photos (which become almost instantly ubiquitous on Facebook anyway), and even some upcoming events/opportunities (each of these activities were undertaken by the Atlanta Federation, which has continued to develop and refine its process on follow-up in a very effective manner).

However, the ‘morning after’ follow-up does not consist of just voicing thanks for the memories, but also communicating possibilities for future memories.  And just as critically, the ‘morning after’ is the time to continue planning and preparing for the future engagement moments that manifest on a personal and community level.  Because while the ‘night before’ might be a ‘Jewish moment’ –  we need to continue to recognize that the Jewish moments we create are not singular in nature, but moments that connect to other moments, and then others, and so on.  When we look at the engagement opportunities as Jewish moments (rather than ‘programming’) we begin to create both timely and timeless Jewish connections. And that is what Jewish engagement is about isn’t it?   Connecting Jews to the continuum of Jewish life, learning and experiences rarely occurs in just in one moment, but more often it takes many moments.  And many ‘morning afters.’

So that goes back to the earlier question: which ‘morning after’ should we wonder about?

We need to think hard about that question, because its answer will dictate the planning we make for future Jewish moments, and the way we will measure success.  If we think the very next morning after will result in more contributions, more bequests and more phone-a-than volunteers, then we will likely be disappointed.  Because the next morning after for many of those young Jews will be… well…sleeping in.   Brunch with friends. The things that young Jews do when they are not being engaged Jewishly – living their lives in the places and ways they want to live them. The next morning will not likely be a transformative moment in which the attendees suddenly have an epiphany about the value of Jewish philanthropy. They will not suddenly concern themselves with  the plights of Jews in the Former Soviet Union or in southern Israel.  They will not immediately become donors. And that is why the very ‘next morning’ after is the wrong morning on which we should focus.

The morning after we need to watch is that ‘morning after’ in the future, not too soon but not too far. In that future ‘morning after’ we may find that the Jewish moment at the dance club led to another Jewish moment in which a Jewish romance was kindled. Or perhaps it led to a moment where an opportunity for a Jewish service experience was communicated and realized, all because of a follow-up emails.  Maybe that night at the club put in motion a series of moments where individuals ultimately begin to explore Jewish community with Jewish friends, start Jewish families with plans for Jewish children, and begin to give back with Jewish hearts and generosity.   Maybe there were many Jewish moments and many ‘morning afters’ – all leading to the one morning after in which the efforts are realized in a sense of engagement and connection that, in turn, helps create new moments for others.

So back to the party I attended – it is a fair to ask the question about what we will find the morning after, but it is equally as important to ask which ‘morning after’  about we are speaking.  Short-term measurements alone will result in short-sighted goals and short-term strategies.  And if we are focused on Jewish engagement for the long-term, we can’t short ourselves.  Just as we want Bar/Bat Mitzvahs to propel Jewish youth into their Jewish adulthood, it is fair (and fun) to hope that Bar Mitzvah themed parties might help propel those same Jews (now adults) into a series of moments that further define their Jewish futures and the futures of their families.  And fueled by other Jewish moments created by the community,  these Jews will be propelled to that that future morning after –  a morning after filled with Jews smiling, talking and moving to the music of community…

Not just the music of Duran Duran.