Posts Tagged ‘Zera’im’


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.


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.