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Game Changers and Gunslingers: A Few Thoughts From Slingshot Day 2009

October 16, 2009

In the North American Jewish community there are a few names that, when said, conjure up more than just an organization – they convey an idea. For example, mention the words Birthright or Federation and you get more than a nod of understanding of the name, you typically get a discussion (and sometimes a debate) regarding their meaning. The same is true with another word – Slingshot.  Now in its fifth edition, Slingshot has become synonymous with an idea and a movement within the Jewish world of recognizing the contributions of innovative non-profits in the Jewish community. Recognition by Slingshot not only provides exposure to the work of organizations that may otherwise be less visible, but it provides a moment for various organization, funders and partners to meet and discuss common opportunities and challenges. This year’s Slingshot Day occurred at a time when participants had both a recognition of the challenging funding environment in which they operate as well as renewed momentum upon which each organization is trying to ‘slingshot’ itself beyond that challenge (and others).

The bulk of the day’s events occurred in the Louis L’Amour Room in the Random House offices in NYC. Not being a connoisseur of western novels, one might be unaware of the impressive oeuvre of L’Amour and his centrality to the western genre.  However, one could not help but recognize that the room was an appropriate place for the Slingshot proceedings, because in a way we are all still in the wild west of the Jewish innovation movement, where new frontier is being explored and there are new forms of Jewish gold being panned in the hills.  Like any expansion into the frontier though, there often is a bit of lawlessness as well as uncertainty, until conventional forms of interaction become the norm.  New territory means new challenges and new challenges means creating new strategies and tactics.  Yes, there is a certain romance to the frontier; a romance that is rooted in reality is also often better when fictionalized. L’Amour knew that better than anybody and he sold millions of books by telling stories not just of hardship of the Wild West, by the grandeur of its experience and the conquering of its adversity.  The maturing world of Jewish entrepreneurship is no different – it is raw, it is real, but in many ways there is a romantic notion about it that captures our collective imagination of the Jewish communal frontier.

In the L’Amour room during Slingshot Day there were dozens of gunslingers and game changers, activists and entrepreneurs (and their funders) who are staking out a new frontier of Jewish life in a world that is not fiction.  Even those organizations that were five-time Slingshot finalists could not help but discuss some of the untamed aspects of Jewish organizational and financial life with which they need to contend. Certainly there were pioneers in that room, even cowboys and cowgirls so to speak, that would have fit right into the romance of a L’Amour novel. Seeing challenges, these individuals were not turning around and heading home to safer havens, they were drawing their double barrels of Jewish creativity and compassion and continuing to fight on into the frontier. They are changing the game and gaining ground.

That is not to say, however, there is not rugged terrain to cover. Even at Slingshot Day, discussions about how to define Jewish innovation and identify the ethics the Jewish entrepreneurial community were uneven and required more specific and action-oriented approaches. Moreover, the broader challenge to contend with remains communicating how big the frontier is and how we must cover so much territory when time feels so short. Sure there are a lot of Slingshot gunslingers and game changers from New York and California, but between the two there is a lot of ground to cover with Jewish innovation, literally and figuratively. And even after Slingshot Day, it is important to remember that Jewish innovation is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  In the words of Louis L’Amour (prominently displayed on the wall of the L’Amour room) – “Reading without thinking is nothing, for a book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think.”  With apologies to L’Amour, Jewish innovation holds to the same principle – innovating without meaning is nothing, for an entrepreneurial endeavor is less important for what it says than for what it makes you experience.  With that in mind, while there is still a wild (east and) west of Jewish innovation, we are fortunate that Jewish gunslingers and game changers don’t need to rely only on six-shooters – especially when they’ve got a Slingshot it their pocket and all of us supporting their pioneering efforts. May that continue to be the case in the future.

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One comment

  1. Seth, I think you captured beautifully as well as thoughtfully the excitement of this day and what it represents, as well as the challenging path that still lies ahead if we are to capitalize fully on its potential. I confess to having grown tired of reading stories about the decline of American Jewry or the current “crisis” in Jewish organizational life. Perhaps I’m naive, but I see energy and creativity — not only in the Louis L’Amour room (never read his stuff either), but in all sorts of places in this sprawling, messy enterprise we call the Jewish community. Perhaps more important, I also see all sorts of connections being formed and networks woven that carry the possibility at least of new ways of doing business in the future. Perhaps it’s true that the Jewish communal infra-structure of the 21st century is being born in front of our eyes. What’s most exciting to me — and I thank you for continually bringing us back to this focus — is the wide range of noble purposes to which all of this energy is being directed. As 21st century American Jews, we have been given a gift (may it last for a long time). We can bring our Jewish experience, relationships, and values to bear on every important and enriching dimension of human life. We can repair the world, nurture our bodies and spirits, celebrate our creativity, exercise our minds, care for our fellow humans and our planet, and do it all in a Jewish key and through a Jewish lens — a lens that we can continue to refine and reshape. To me, that’s what the people in Slingshot and at Slingshot Day represent. It’s the breadth of the agendas and the boldness of the visions of possibility that the innovators and their supporters embody that energizes me.

    Now, the challenge is: can we sustain this? Can we collectively create the conditions that will enable this energy to continue to flow, grow, and gradually create a new community that blends the best of what we have been with the best of what is emerging? I think it’s doable; in fact, I think it’s being done.



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