Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Innovation’

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A Chanukiyah of Predictions for 2010

December 13, 2009

December is the time of the secular year where we look backward and forward – making best-of lists and summarizing our prognostications for the future.  While many faiths join together for revelries related to the secular new year, for Jews it is also the season to recall the value of perseverance and faith in collective Jewish endeavors, as well as the unexpected miracles that we encounter along the way.  So in the spirit of the new year but nevertheless inspired by how one ancient prediction regarding a small vessel of oil gave rise to the miraculous tale of eight nights of luminescence, here are eight predictions for the coming twelve months of 2010:

1.   The new “I” word is… Imagination.  If 2009 was the year when the newness of Jewish innovation became more widely discussed (or perhaps, debated) as a substantial aspect of Jewish communal development, it was also the year where innovation as a term became, well, old news. Yes, there are important discussions to be had about the role of entrepreneurs and ‘in-treprenuers’ in the world of Jewish organizations, but innovation alone cannot change communities.  Imagination, however, can create new ways for communities to collectively view their futures without getting bogged down in semantics.  I predict that in 2010 we will find more and more local communities leveraging the imagination of their members out of both necessity and desire, and that as we give our communities permission to imagine, we will create futures burning even brighter than we can anticipate.

2.   The Overseas Case Goes into Overdrive. For people who expect to only hear about the budget challenges facing primary overseas partners of US philanthropy – the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, my prediction is that while people might hear some of what they expect, they will also hear the unexpected.  Both organizations are in the midst of engaging new generations of leadership and deploying new tactics to engage supporters. JAFI’s Global Leaders Forum,   impactful foray into tweeting, and re-energizing initiatives like the new Jewish Peoplehood Hub created in partnership with the Nadav Fund and UJA-Federation of New York give reason for great optimism for the future of JAFI.  Similarly anticipate great ideas being implemented by JDC’s nextgen professional leadership in 2010, continuing that organization’s vital role in helping Jews worldwide in new and impactful ways.

3.   The Educational Affordability Crisis. The past eighteen months have given those who care about Jewish education a great amount of concern, and for good reason.  Enrollment has declined as parents who were already struggling to meet high tuition costs decided to opt-out all together in the wake of the Great Recession; and unfortunately statistics tell us that families drop out, the generally don’t come back.  Even though organizations like PEJE have already been proactively convening discussions on the issue of the changing economy,  I predict in 2010  we will be forced to squarely face one of the greatest and most urgent challenges of contemporary Jewish life – making a high quality Jewish day school education affordable to every Jewish family who wants to provide that education to their children. It is time for bolder local and national solutions, and I believe 2010 is when our realization of the crisis will inspire great solutions.

4.   Jewish media continues to transform… for the better.  In addition to the ancient content of our heritage, there is great new Jewish content emerging, from sites about arts, culture and education (Tablet Magazine and MyJewishlearing.com), to thought-provoking online journals and magazines (such as Sh’ma and Lilith) and of course philanthropic resources such as eJewish Philanthropy. While different in content, all of these resources and countless others have the potential to continue to transform national and local Jewish dialogue. I predict that in 2010 as we see more and more local Jewish newspaper come under financial pressure we will see a substantial migration of eyeballs to online media and resources. Moreover, we will find that those resources rise to meet the challenge of delivering high-quality content. 2010 will a defining year for online Jewish media, and you will read all about those transformative changes… online.

5.   J Street, AIPAC and AJC: Separate, but Civil. Some predictions are more aspirational than others, and perhaps this is one of those predictions. But I believe that in 2010 the Iranian crisis will force J Street, AIPAC, AJC, and others to recognize that even with their differences, their coordination on some issues will be important to strengthening an securing the US-Israel relationship for the challenging days ahead.  I predict (hope?) we will see high level leadership and dialogue that builds bridges in relationships and influence to achieve results.  To do so however, J Street needs to continue to mature as an organization and AIPAC and AJC will need to recognize that their big tents may need to get a bit bigger. 2010 is not the year for deepening division among advocates for Israel; it must be a year for closing those divides as much as possible.

6.   Microfundraising goes… big. The patterns of how people contribute online will change more in 2010 than the past several years combined.  As more and more local organizations provide opportunity for online giving, donor designation and project funding, more and more donors will choose to make their charitable contributions in more specific ways.  In addition, organizations like JGooders will enable local initiatives to have more direct pathways to global donors. I predict what once was a concierge service for wealthy donors with philanthropic funds will become the conventional wisdom in 2010, leveraging technology to make that wisdom reality.

7.   Emphasis on Outcomes. Given the new focus on microfundraisng, organizations will need to be more focused on measuring and communicating results. While many larger organizations have already invested heavily in outcome measurement strategies, there will be a real push in 2010 for all non-profit organizations to become outcome-focused by understanding the taxonomy of their outcomes.  As resources stay scarce, results will be the key differentiators.  Those organizations that can demonstrate their effectiveness quantitatively will have the edge.  Expect to see more and more organizations retooling themselves both with board resources and technology to enable them to get that edge… and ultimately get those elusive dollars.

8.   There will be magic in the Magic Kingdom. Even though the 2009 General Assembly just recently concluded, I predict that the 2010 General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America (to be held in Orlando) will truly be one of the most significant gatherings of American Jewry in the past 20 years. With new leadership now in place and new energy percolating across the system, I predict that GA10 will bring together more people in more collaborative discussions than ever before, and that before, during and after the GA people will recognize the impact that that conference will have on the next 20 years of Jewish life.  A successful GA will also cap a year where a reenergized Federation system emerges as a renewed force in modernizing Jewish philanthropy… and that is no Mickey Mouse prediction.

So there you have it – eight predictions for the next twelve months. While some of those predictions may very well require miracles, I think that we will find 2010 is a year that exceeds our expectations. And just like the shamash is the service candle for each of the other candles in the chanukiyah, in 2010 each of us will have the responsibility to be the shamash in lighting our own predictions and aspirations for the days ahead. Let us be those shamashes together, and may 2010 be even brighter than we imagine. Chanukah Sameach!

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Not Too Small to Matter: Hybrid Organizations and the Challenge of Jewish Innovation

November 3, 2009

A few weeks ago one of my friends suggested a new game – innovation bingo. The rules are simple, sit in a room full of under-40 Jewish volunteers and professionals and wait until the word ‘innovation’ (or some variant) is used. Then yell bingo, and you win. The real fun, my friend joked, is not whether someone wins, but how quickly it takes for someone to win. Unfortunately, nothing about Jewish innovation is as simple as the rules to my friend’s proposed game.  Inspiring and nurturing Jewish innovation is still easier said than done, and the manner in which the rapid increase of Jewish start-ups are supported and integrated into the broader fabric of contemporary Jewish life presents not only opportunities but  challenges as well.  Whereas the last Jewish century has been, in part, built on a foundation laid by large community organizations that are too large to fail, the next Jewish century may very well be shaped by Jewish initiatives that may seem limited in size, but are definitely not too small to matter.

Some interesting thinking that has influenced my own opinion on the role of small, entrepreneurial organizations in the Jewish world is the concept of a hybrid organization.  This type of organization, most succinctly defined by Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, is “a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration.”  One of the reasons why I like the definition Mark proposes so much is that it encompasses fundamental aspects or organizational structure (mission), strategic orientation (market strategy) and tactical strength (scale and collaboration). I also think that truly strong hybrid organizations are do not mash-up so many ideas and tactics that they lose their cohesiveness, but are entities (or initiatives) that also leverage core values and incorporate the best practices of learning/changing organizations.  Given the challenges of reframing large organizations entrenched in history and (oftentimes) complexity, the development of small hybrid organizations are frequently the easiest way for engaged social activists to organize an efficient response to a social need they have identified.

While theory is interesting, the facts are even more compelling.  A cursory survey of the Jewish communal landscape results in an interesting an energizing set of Jewish start-ups that address a wide rang of social needs. Ranging from organizations that address shifting approaches to Jewish prayer and learning (Mechon Hadar), to organizations that address issues related to environmental education in the orthodox community (Canfei Nesharim) to initiatives that leverage Jewish values to change the broader world (Repair the World, American Jewish World Service), there are hybrid organizations being created to address every flavor of Jewish social mission imaginable. But it is not just in North America – in Europe and Israel you can find a similar explosion of Jewish start-ups, from organizations helping share a Jewish vision of a positive and inclusive Europe (CEJI) to the expansion of Jewish knowledge and social action in Hungary (Marom Budapest), to organizations developing new pathways of Jewish microphilanthropy (JGooders) new relationships between Israel/Diaspora young adults (Parallel Lives). One gets the feeling that the world of small Jewish start-ups is just beginning to unfold and that, while these organizations may be limited in current scale, their ability to expand the frontiers of our global Jewish community may be unlimited.

But there are limits.

These organizations, just like larger more established organizations, often suffer from shortcomings that can and do impede their broader development and success. First, the proponents of Jewish start-ups tend to overly fetishize Jewish innovation and assume that all small start-ups are going to be the paradigm shifting hybrid organizations they promise to be.  While mixes of mission, strategy and scalability may provide solutions that are engaging and invigorating, they will not be an all-answering (or even an adequate) substitute for larger, historic and impactful organizations. Second, their leadership is often in need of greater training, maturity and reflection – characteristics that entrepreneurs sometimes lack (or resist), but which our broader community desperately needs. Third, we need to make sure that we do not overly invest in a cult of personality, but rather in a cult of excellence. New is not always better and fresh is not always transformative.  While we should not discourage Jewish innovation, we also should recognize that blindly encouraging the development of hybrid organizations to the exclusion of renewing our established organizations might result in community infrastructure that is diverse in spirit but insufficient in capability to address social needs in an efficient and impactful manner.

Nevertheless, the real question then is not whether there should be a role in the Jewish community for these emerging hybrid organizations, but how to make sure that we support their development in a way that doesn’t assume their small size is a reflection of their small potential. Just as much, however, we need to make sure that our value of their high-level of “buzz” is not a substitute for our expectation of their high-level of performance.  In any case, a better understanding, encouragement (and mentoring) of these small, developing (and sometimes disruptive) hybrid organizations will no doubt help the Jewish world mature in a way that, like my friend’s game, would be a no-lose proposition.

Bingo indeed.

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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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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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Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Key Questions on Jewish Innovation, Interruption, and Sustainability

June 14, 2009

In preparing for a recent flight to New York for some meetings that included discussions regarding the state of Jewish social innovation, I compiled a stack of recent ‘want to read, but haven’t yet read’ materials on the topic. But much like the rest of life, my best-laid plans were interrupted when I stopped at a newsstand in the airport to pick up the day’s newspaper. There on the shelf was a BusinessWeek headline too hard to ignore: “Innovation, Interrupted: How America’s failure to capitalize on innovation hurt the economy – and what happens next.”

How’s that for serendipity?

So rather than methodically review the stack I compiled, I boarded the plane and dove right into the BusinessWeek article with fascination.  It raises some key observations and questions regarding the last decade of commercial innovation and how the slowdown (or an evening out) of the nation’s innovation curve may have contributed to the current economic environment.  Focusing on the technology and biotech sectors, the article raises the question of whether innovative development really slowed down at all, or whether the barriers to the commercialization of those developments were the true culprits of stymieing innovation.  Certainly these are questions that are equally applicable to social entrepreneurs as well as those in the for-profit sectors.

The second article was the recent white paper titled The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. The paper, based on the 2008 Survey of New Jewish Organizations, undertaken by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, raises several key findings and recommendations, several of which are precise observations that require much deeper consideration.  In reviewing a landscape of over 300 Jewish start-ups then in operation, the paper provides some compelling statistical information supporting a belief that the Jewish innovation is on a growth curve that reflects the underlying changes in 21st century Jewish life and that leverages developing social media and communications technologies.

Finishing the Jumpstart paper, I couldn’t help but think back to the BusinessWeek article I just read and wondered – Jewish innovation is important and seemingly fast-growing, but how do we ensure that this very important Jewish innovation isn’t interrupted?

Certainly we need to make sure that the question of sustainability is considered and anticipated 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 by action. Action in developing Jewish innovators, developing models of financial sustainability, encouraging innovation in underrepresented areas of need (i.e. the Jumpstart survey finds that only 2.9% of Jewish start-ups self-identified as primarily social service organizations; a very small percentage given the size of the need), and reducing barriers for success.

Action should trump discussion, for sure. However, for the action to be meaningful, there needs to be some consideration of key questions raised (in my mind at least) by both by the BusinessWeek article and the Jumpstart paper. I don’t have answers to these questions (and I certainly welcome input from those that do), but I list them below as helpful suggestions for you to talk amongst yourselves. They fall into the categories of What, Who, Where, Why and How?

1.     What? First, we need to ask the tricky question of whether we are investing in true innovation that can have a sustainable impact on Jewish life, or are we investing in very niche areas of Jewish interest that are fashionable but not forward-thinking? Is there a difference?  How we answer these questions may very well determine how well we can develop even greater amounts of investment in Jewish innovation in the coming years.

2.     Who? The Jumpstart paper focuses on the ratio that many innovative efforts are independent entities (80%) as opposed to independently operating subsidiaries of larger organizations (20%).  But the question remains, by motivating innovation outside of established organizations, are we dooming those established organizations to an innovation deficit?  Rather than creating an accretive aspect of Jewish communal life, are we inadvertently creating an abscess that may actually damage it?  How can we balance the locus of innovation so that we get maximum benefit with minimum harm?

3.    Where? Are our existing community-based funding organizations  (as opposed to national foundations) sufficiently focused on funding regional and micro-regional Jewish innovation? The Jumpstart survey reinforces the belief that Jewish innovation  (on a percentage basis of surveyed organizations) is greatest in New York and California (57% of surveyed organizations are located in those two states).  Certainly those states have some of the largest population centers, but how do we create a broader national environment of Jewish innovation in places like St. Louis? Charlotte? Houston?

4.     Why? If so few organizations in the innovation ecosystem are focused on human services, how will we balance the legacy needs of existing infrastructure that primarily focus on servicing those needs; especially when those needs will be rapidly escalating as the baby boom generation shifts into an age where they may more frequently need those services?

5.    How? Assuming we believe that greater investment in Jewish innovation is essential to continuing the maintenance of a strong Jewish community, how do we inspire entrepreneurs to innovate in areas of greatest need?  Is that a fair question?  And if we succeed in motivating a shift of substantial regional and micro-regional investment in innovation (i.e. Federations invest more in innovative initiatives and start-ups as opposed to legacy areas of funding) what are the metrics by which we measure the impact of innovation against the cost? Is it the number of entities? Web-clicks? Participants? Or are there more general longitudinal metrics we need to identify and begin to measure?

As the BusinessWeek article suggests, experiencing a few years of innovation does not necessarily forestall great crisis.  We may all be quick to praise the current state of Jewish innovation (and rightfully so), but not without critically assessing what comes next. Also, pointing to characteristics of previous eras of commercial innovation, the BusinessWeek article notes that “no industrial revolution in the past has been based on a single technology” and points to the combination of railroads, electricity, telephone and telegraph as the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and the confluence of several technologies in the era of innovation that seemed so dramatic in the 1990s.  Accordingly, innovation in one particular area of Jewish life may not be enough, we may need innovation in lots of areas, including inside existing centers of Jewish life. Otherwise, we may find that our innovation is interrupted and – for a people concerned with its survival –  we need innovation that is sustainable.

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(Jewish) Community Organizing: Lessons from the Obama Campaign

December 12, 2008

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the recent election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is a momentous event to consider. In a time of dramatic concern by so many, the Obama campaign has given an equal number of people in the world a moment of radical amazement.  There are certainly many lessons to be learned with respect to the Obama campaign in the political context, but the strategies and tactics deployed by the Obama campaign also hold numerous lessons of how we can better organize our Jewish communities.

1.    Positive messages create positive results.  Certainly in 2008 there were numerous negative topics to be discussed, including a war in the Middle East, and a troubled economy at home.  But Obama, while voicing concern about those several topics, nevertheless focused on a message of hope and change. So too must our Jewish community focus on positive messages.  While so much of our Jewish message is framed in the context of “never again,” too little of it is framed in the context of “Yes we can.”  True, there are great challenges facing our community – slowing affiliation, a nuclear Iran and Jewish apathy.  But much is going right as well – and we need a positive message if we expect people to join a positive Jewish campaign for change.

2.    Small contributions count as much as big ones.  Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s record-shattering fundraising.  But what has been remarkable about that effort is how many of the contributors were first-time political contributors and how many made small, but repeated, contributions. Also remarkable was the way Obama’s campaign tapped into the financial power of the netroots community.  Our Jewish community would be wise to quickly learn these fundraising lessons and apply them to our own efforts.  We are missing a tremendous opportunity to engage community members philanthropically in new and different ways – ways successfully deployed by the Obama campaign.

3.    Investment in field operations and social networks matter.   The Obama campaign redefined the power of the ground game in the recent election. Whereas Hillary Clinton focused on the big states with large primaries, Obama also focused on the states that had caucuses, understanding the power of small collections of passionate individuals. By engaging in places big and small, Obama created a network that engaged voters where they were in ways they wanted to be engaged, where in person or online. Sounds like something we would be wise to do with American Jews – meeting Jews where they are, and leveraging emerging social technologies to make those meetings happen.  We need to improve our Jewish ground game, before that game becomes too difficult to win.

4.    Agents of change still need voices of experience. Obama knew that one of his greatest weaknesses was the perception of his inexperience. So what did he do to counter that criticism? He found one of the most experienced senators to serve as his running mate. Rather than fear the influence of a more experienced leader, Obama embraced it. We should apply the same lessons in our Jewish communities.  While we need to embrace the fresh ideas that come from inexperienced Jewish innovators, we need to make sure those innovators embrace the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned leaders.

5.    Words matter. Perhaps the one critical mistake of the Obama campaign was when he commented that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter and cling to their guns and religion.  The Obama campaign credits that moment as a defining one in the campaign – after that episode Obama took a greater role in the campaign and worked to more carefully craft his message.  The care we need to use in choosing words in the Jewish community is no less important. When we refer to the “problem” of intermarriage we would be wiser to describe it as a “challenge.” Just like voters don’t like to be considered bitter, spouses don’t like to consider their marriages problems. If we want to be successful in our campaign for the engagement of more Jews, we should mind our words carefully.

6.    Create multiple paths to success.  Early in the campaign the Obama campaign said they were going to create multiple paths victory, including campaigning in states long ceded to the Republicans. And that is exactly what they did, so that on election night there were multiple ways for the electoral votes to add up in Obama’s favor. If we are wise, the Jewish community will learn from this experience and also focus on strengthening multiple paths to engagement.  If we want the numbers to add up, we need to create new and novel ways of Jewish engagement.

7.   Embrace the complexities of identity.  Obama has a complex racial background, one he embraced and transcended during the campaign. The Jewish people also have a complex background, filled with nuanced and conflicting identities.  Rather than getting mired in identity conflicts, like Obama we need to find common threads that help us transcend our individual insecurities about our identity.  Jewish identity has become a word we struggle to define and often endeavor to avoid. We should embrace the complexities of Jewish identity and perhaps we may find that there will be many more of us to embrace.

8.    Believe.  Obama believed he could win the presidency, and defying all expectations, he did.  People believed in his potential to effect change because it encouraged a belief that change could occur. Perhaps no greater lesson to be learned the Jewish community is the power of belief – belief in one another and belief in our collective ability to make our Jewish community stronger.

So there you have it, eight lessons from the ’08 Obama campaign. Even with these lessons in hand, it is fair to wonder if can we change the way our Jewish community engage individuals with the same level of success the Obama campaign achieved.  The parallels are remarkable – just like the current state of our nation, the current state of American Jewry gives us much for concern, but much more for pride. And while even the greatest challenges may still lie ahead of us, the strength of our Jewish past and the resilience of our Jewish spirit give us much to aspire for our collective Jewish future.

As a Jewish people, can we too achieve our goals?  The answer must be no different that the one boldly spoken by our new president on a clear, and clearly victorious night  – yes we can.

And we must.

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The Fill-up and the Top-off (of Jewish Fuel Tanks)

October 2, 2008

Writing this post from the West Coast, my mind is still thinking of things back east – my family, my friends, and my gas shortage.

Wait – my gas shortage?

Yes, for those who have not heard, Atlanta is in the midst of a terrible gas shortage, the lingering consequences of the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike on the Gulf Coast refinery operations. For almost two weeks Atlanta has been suffering though a gas shortage, the like of which that hasn’t been seen since the Carter administration – empty tanks, long lines and rising frustrations.  The other evening on our way home from Rosh Hashana dinner my wife and I drove around for 45 minutes looking for a gas station that was (1) open and (2) had a line less then thirty cars deep. Suffice it to say after passing over twenty gas stations we finally gave up (and less an 1/8 of a tank of gas for our effort).

Now there are several reasons why the gas shortage has continued, and much of it has to do with the hurricane-induced shortage of gasoline deliveries to service stations.  Of course there is also the overarching addiction that our country (and commuter-filled Atlanta) has to automobiles and the gasoline that powers them. But what I find equally if not more frustrating is the fact that the magnitude of the shortage has been increased by the behavior of so many motorists who ceaselessly stop to “top-off” their tanks to make sure that their tank is never less than full. Even if they don’t have the necessity to fill-up, many drivers – motivated by fear – are nonetheless exacerbating the shortage by constantly diminishing the supplies as soon as they arrive by “topping-off” their tank. Now for many drivers who use their vehicles all day to perform their jobs, a full tank is a legitimate concern. But for many others it is not. And this irrational demand takes a substantial toll on the limited supply and exacerbates the shortage.

So, while I was waiting in line the other day to fill up my tank, and now again as I write this post, I can’t help but compare and contrast the way drivers in Atlanta are dealing with filling up their gas tanks with the way so many Jews fill up (or don’t fill up) their personal “Jewish” tanks.

Think of each Jew as a vehicle on a Jewish journey and his/her neshema, or soul, is the tank where they store their Jewish fuel. No less than the gasoline we put in our cars, the Jewish moments of learning, caring, creating and praying fuel those Jewish journeyers onward on their chosen paths. There are plenty of ‘service stations’ along those journeys, and there are different types of experiences that serve as that Jewish fuel. Some are high-octane and some are regular. Some stations are cheaper than others, and some have better customer service. We pass them everyday (or at least have the opportunity to pass them) and sometimes we stop in to top-off our tanks, and sometimes we don’t.  Just like a few of us do with our cars, some of us drive around with our Jewish neshemot on almost empty, and some of us make sure our tanks are always filled.

But in thinking about the gasoline shortage back in Atlanta, what I am wondering is what will it take to create an environment where, just like the gas stations in Atlanta, Jews are willing to wait in line to fill-up and top-off their Jewish experiences. What would it take to motivate those individuals to seek out those Jewish moments with a craving and exasperation they express when seeking ever-so-scarce gasoline?   What kind of Jewish experiences will it take, what kind of Jewish community must we build, to inspire a sense of urgency to fill our Jewish tanks every chance we get?

As I noted above, certainly one thing the Jewish community as a whole should be mindful of is to create a Jewish infrastructure that supports ‘alternative’ approaches of Jewish experience. Much like the mantra of alternative fuels for our automobiles, we should not be too dependent on any one kind of Jewish experience, because when the quality is diminished or there is difficulty in accessing a particular experience, sometimes people just… well… run out.  Instead we need to encourage alternative approaches to providing people the Jewish fuel to fill up their neshema.  Then, in embracing these new approaches, they might find it easier to fill-up and top off, and have a greater desire to do so.

We also must continue to innovate new ideas and new ways to deliver the existing approaches to Jewish experience. Not all that is old is bad (just like not all that is new is good), and we should be mindful that as much as we need to reimagine new experiences, we also need to refine aspects of traditional experiences. Refine them in ways that create demand, not just panic, joy not frustration.

So back to thinking homeward… hopefully in a few days the gas shortage will end and we will be back to our normal ways of consuming fuel. But hopefully this momentary experience with our irrational demand for fossil fuel for our car engines will remind us of the need for our Jewish fuel used in very important engines… engines that take us into our individual and collective Jewish futures.