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.



  1. I wish I’d been in the room to hear the discussion. I think you have summarized the change required that will ensure Jewish communities in the next generation and I love the name. It’s a large part of our new community strategy, even if we ahven’t articulated nearly so well.

  2. Seth, thank you for not only being there, but writing so thoughtfully about the consultation and its potential import. I agree with all your points. We do need to work both on weaving innovation and innovators more fully into the fabric of Jewish life (without undermining the distinctiveness and vibrancy that makes them such desirable additions) and on grounding the entire process of re-imagining and redesigning our community more firmly in a Jewish vision and Jewish vocabulary. I don’t know if the innovators and their projects are zeraim (seeds) or perhaps already something more — maybe nitzanim (flower buds). In all events, this is a moment of great opportunity for those who believe that Jewish life need not be driven by fear and anxiety, but can instead be built on a passionate desire to live out Jewish values in ever new ways and settings. This is what I see happening, and those organizations that embrace this passion will, I believe, thrive, whether they are new start-ups or established institutions.

  3. […] On Jewish Innovation: Social Entrepreneurs and the Framing of the Zera’im Movement […]

  4. […] thoughtfully, and not just by those who are active participants in the innovation ecosystem (or what I have previously referred to as the Zera’im movement).  But even more importantly, we need to make sure that the discussion is substantially outweighed […]

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