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I Hear a Symphony: The Sound of Jewish Social Entrepreneurship

September 7, 2009

As I continue to have discussions with members of my local and national Jewish community, I am constantly amazed at the diversity of ideas, opinions and attitudes related to Jewish social entrepreneurship. From the entrepreneurs that are ahead of the curve to the funders who are trying to financially support the curve (and in between,  the organizations who are wondering how to make sure the curve doesn’t curve right around them), there is a lot of conversation, a great deal of action and even a bit of confusion. The discussion is a beautiful musical arrangement performed by an orchestra of engaged Jews that perform their own parts with instruments and within music halls of their choosing. Yes, when I listen carefully to the community of Jewish social entrepreneurs and their supporters, I hear a symphony.

But of course, like any attentive listener, I strive to make sense of the sound – to understand what I am hearing and how to best embrace the grandness and complexity of the experience. I am not alone – there are community leaders, professionals and funders that also hear this new music and are endeavoring to better understand what to listen for.

There is no lack of resources to help guide the individuals in making sense of this brave new world of thoroughly modern social entrepreneurship. Whether it is resources provided by funding organizations that support the fellowship of entrepreneurs or thought leadership by online news aggregators and blogs like eJewishphilanthropy.com, one can generally find some assistance in determining how best to encourage, engage and evaluate Jewish social entrepreneurs. But even with all of these contemporary resources to aid me in my listening, I go back to a resource about as far from modern as you can get, Aaron Copland’s book “What to Listen For in Music” –  first published by the composer in 1939.

Now its interesting to note that back in 1939 the composer who eventually became one of America’s finest composers and recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal was already struggling with how to best describe contemporary music. In his book he wrote:

Over and over again the question arises as to why it is that so many music lovers feel disoriented when they listen to contemporary music.  They seem to accept with equanimity the notion that the work of the present day composer is not for them. Why?  ‘Because they just don’t understand it.’”

This quote, like so much of Copland’s book resonates with me as I listen carefully to the symphony of modern day Jewish social entrepreneurship. While so many of us are happy to get our groove on in the fluid and changing world of Jewish innovation, it is true that even some of the greatest lovers of the Jewish people have a sense of disorientation of where we are and were we may be going as a people. We need some guidance as to how to listen to the contemporary music of Jewish engagement being performed by the combination of ancient and modern instruments and orchestrations.

We should not only acknowledge the importance of listening actively and carefully to these diverse voices, I also believe we must challenge these innovators to help us understand their music.  The conventional wisdom has been that the entrepreneurs innovate and everyone else figures out (1) what elements of the composition are that which are essential to hear (so as to identify/satisfy the appropriate funding criteria) and  (2) how  to categorize the  communal and social impact of the  innovation on the broader Jewish community.  I believe that conventional wisdom is wrong.  I believe that it is these composers themselves that must help us understand their compositions, to help us make sense of how we should listen to their works and how we can best express the reaction they are hoping to generate.

These composers, our Jewish social entrepreneurs, must take a page from Aaron Copland, they too must help us understand how to listen to their music.

In his book, Copland even suggests as much. He wrote:

“To a composer, listening to music is a perfectly natural and simple process. That’s what is should be for others. If there is any explaining to be done, the composer naturally thinks that, since he knows what goes into a musical composition, none has a better right to say what the listener aught to get from it.

Perhaps the composer is wrong about that, perhaps the artist cannot be so objective in his approach to music as the detached music educator. But is seems to me the risk is worth taking. Fro the composer has something vital at stake. In helping the others listen to the music more intelligently, he is working toward the spread of a musical culture, which in the end will affect the understanding of his own creation.”

Following that line of thinking, Copland’s book is an attempt to do just that – to explain the importance of careful listening, as well as suggesting exactly that to which one should listen upon hearing a musical composition. He wrote not only the sheets of music, but the sheets of interpretation of that music.

That too is what I believe we should and must ask of our social entrepreneurs, as we write the next book of Jewish experience. We must, without hesitation or limitation, encourage these men and women to follow their passions in helping innovate new ways to strengthen the Jewish community and to demonstrate the impact of Jewish values.  But we should also not be shy in asking them to be engaged in helping the rest of us figure out how to best listen to their innovative approaches and respond with support. In other words, we must not only respond to requests to help guide the creators, but also request that the creators take responsibility for guiding us.

How can we do this? First and foremost we need to understand that not all social entrepreneurs are the same, and while we may categorize the movement broadly, we should understand that each innovator is unique and that our approach to engagement must be similarly diversified and customized. In our effort to build individually customized relationships, we not only can advise them, but they can help advise us. Whether it is customized peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-predecessor relationships or peer-to-prospect relationships, these conversations should be bidirectional and mutually beneficial. But one-on-one relationships will not be enough to harness intelligence of our social entrepreneur community. We must also restructure some of our “organized” Jewish community institutions to be more receptive and welcoming to these entrepreneurs, but this restructuring should not be done “for” them, it must be done “with” them.  Certainly this will require a bit of sacrifice from the social entrepreneurs, just as the community is required to sacrifice some of its conventional attitudes and approaches.  But it is this type of mutual sacrifice that has defined the Jewish community since the Exodus, and it is the benefit of this mutual sacrifice that has sustained us as a Jewish people as each generation has joined with the generation before it and after it to encounter our collective challenges and transmit our shared values.

Yes, when I listen to the conversations of our local and national social entrepreneurship community I hear a symphony.  But for it to be more than a tender melody, we need everyone – the composers and listeners, to take ownership in both what we hear and how we hear it. If that is the case, a powerful, enchanting and sustaining symphony it certainly will be.

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One comment

  1. […] I Hear a Symphony: The Sound of Jewish Social Entrepreneurship […]



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