Jewish innovation & the establishment: creating in ways that connect with what’s already been created?

The blog below is an adaptation of a piece I wrote for PresenTense. I was writing this around Tisha B’Av, which prompted me to consider whether Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai the first truly Jewish innovator?

There were many great leaders before him, but there are some defining characteristics about his actions during the destruction of the second temple that may add to our discussion about what is “Jewish” about Jewish innovation, and what role do Jewish innovators play within the broader communal establishment.

According to tradition, ben Zakkai was a pacifist in Jerusalem in 68 C.E. when the city was under siege. Jerusalem was controlled by the Zealots, people who would rather die than surrender to Rome. Ben Zakkai urged surrender, but the Zealots would not hear of it, so ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. They carried the coffin to Vespasian (Roman ruler)’s tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh where he could start a small school and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophecy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai’s request. Vespasian became Emperor within a year, and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The school ben Zakkai established at Yavneh became the center of Jewish learning for centuries and replaced Jerusalem as the seat of the Sanhedrin. Zakkai went on to establish with others prayer as a replacement for sacrifice and further adapt Judaism to this new reality (adapted from Jewish virtual library)

Rabbi Yochanan was insightful, creative, daring, could pitch (even to enemy leaders) and had the ability to implement his innovation. Not only that, in true measure of a successful innovation, Rabbi Yochanan’s proved to be transferable, replicable, scalable and sustainable. For much of the last 2000 years, and in most parts of the world, the Judaism practiced was shaped by the actions of Rabbi Yochanan and the innovative move from temple ritual to study and prayer that he and the other sages instituted.

Rabbi Yochanan was interested in preserving and adapting Judaism in response to particular circumstances. The changes he sought were based on a perceived need of the community he served, not simply his own interests. Rabbi Yochanan innovated from within, and sought support from the Jewish community, leaders and even the non-Jewish powerbrokers of the time. Contemporary innovators, it seems, are often innovating in response to a perceived failing establishment.

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This June, I joined 150 innovators from across the Jewish world at the conference of ROI, a “global community of Jewish innovators.” The people and projects I encountered inspired me. Many individuals have turned their ideas into reality with little or no backing from the communal establishment. As someone whose innovative work has been supported by large or well resourced communal institutions, I was humbled by the people I met – real pioneers pushing boundaries, many aiming to offer a more diverse, inclusive, and engaging spectrum of Jewish expression. Nevertheless, the conference raised questions for me about what “Jewish innovation” is, how the Jewish innovation sector can grow, and how it works in relationship with the organized Jewish community.

To assess these issues, I developed an informal survey on SurveyMonkey. I sent it to approximately 70 individuals over two weeks, 46 who took the survey and 31 of whom completed it in full. The sample included professionals who self define as innovators, have participated in ‘innovation gatherings’, or whom I define as innovators – people who work using new ideas and approaches to engage people with Judaism and Jewish culture. They ranged in age, with a little over a third between 25 and 30; the majority from the United States or England, though there was also global representation from South Africa, Israel, Mexico, Central & Eastern Europe & Australia.

One starting point is questioning what are the motivations for innovation? How does it align with individuals’ personal sense of self? For many respondents it was clearly linked with their approach to life and personal creativity: “I innovate because I breathe. Half the time I don’t realize I am being innovative” (Tera [Nova Jade] Greene, DJ & Film Producer, California) or “I am an idealistic person who is driven by belief in trying to make a difference around me and trying to find effective new ways to do just that.” (Tali Nates, Director, Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide centre) This reflects the sentiment of a number of those polled, and is matched by 71% strongly agreeing and 26% somewhat agreeing that they innovate “as an outlet for my creative energy.”

Yet there were also plenty of innovators who highlighted a Jewish basis, or a response to lack of Jewish affiliation that drove their innovation: “Jewish civilization’s mission on earth is not yet complete, for that important work to continue we must change, adapt, discover and re-invent” (Joshua Avedon, co-founder Jumpstart, California); “I found an area where there was a clear gap and need. There was no existing Jewish organization addressing these issues and connecting these groups of Jews.” (Erica Lyons, Founder, Asian Jewish Life, Hong Kong)

The survey provided interesting responses about how we should consider the interconnectedness between the establishment and the innovation scenes and how we might address alternative expressions of Judaism.  The perspectives on what is “Jewish” in Jewish innovation varied tremendously. Some respondents expressed a clear Jewish idea of innovation: “Jewish innovation treats the entirety of Jewish text, history, and practice as a set of tools which can be leveraged and utilised…We are made better with the infusion of Jewish values and ritual, while Judaism is made better through the good will and creative energy that we bring to it” (Benji HolzmanTzedek’s Overseas Programme Coordinator in Ghana). Nevertheless, others suggested there is possibly nothing intrinsically Jewish about Jewish innovation other than context: “Innovation is doing something that has not been done before. Jewish innovation is doing something that has never been done before in the Jewish community” (Vincent Knowles, Founder, Shabbat B’Sadeh, London).

The lack of consensus about what defines “Jewish” innovation was also evident in the variety of responses about the Jewish content of Jewish innovation; 80% agreed it is “defined by those doing the innovating.” 74% agreed that Jewish innovation “should still include three or more of the following – Connection to Torah/a covenant with higher being/values,Israel, Jewish history, family life or Hebrew language and culture” (based onAvraham Infeld’s five-legged table).

There is a link between how Jewish innovators handle Jewish values and culture and how they relate to mainstream communal institutions. I perceive there is a recognition that the authority for what defines content as Jewish is shifting to a more pluralist approach with increased individual autonomy. At the same time, those polled, many who have had Jewish educational experiences, still feel there are some central building blocks that can provide the foundation for any Jewish innovation. The establishment often supports projects that are in line with its particular political and religious viewpoints. This might explain why respondents were split at 35.5% agreeing and disagreeing with the statement ‘The Jewish establishment in my community welcomes innovation, supports it with guidance and resources, and acknowledges the autonomy and flexibility of innovation and innovators.’

There were positive examples where the establishment provided support and encouragement for innovation: “Federation has been incredibly helpful to us in providing connections, ideas and speaking opportunities…We are lucky to have wonderful working relationships with several large Jewish agencies” (Rachel Ishofsky, Associate Executive Director, Jewish Heart for Africa, USA).

One recent conversation with Nic Abery (a PresenTense fellow now resident in JHub withLook to Learn) highlighted JHub as a particularly positive example of a communal strategic framework working in tandem with Jewish innovation. There was recognition of the broader advantages of joining this community and how this leads to thinking about connecting with the broader community. JHub also becomes an access point for the establishment to communicate with alternative and innovative Jewish projects.

However, there were far more examples of obstacles for innovators: “The establishment was more than just counterproductive. Since they had a different opinion they actively worked against the project” (Ilja Sichrovsky, Founder Muslim-Jewish Conference, Austria) or “The Jewish establishment was initially very hostile towards my ideas regarding innovative ways to approach Israel education…the majority of Jewish organizations and leaders remain resistant to changing traditional educational models.” (Yoav Schaefer, Executive Director Avi Schaefer Fund, USA)

Joshua Avedon warns about how we position innovation in relationship to the establishment: “To even acknowledge there is such a thing “a” community establishment is to play into the factory of false dichotomies rampant in the Jewish world…there is a communal and institutional inertia that must be overcome for Jewish life to fully flower in the 21st century.”

Similarly, David Wolkin, executive director of Limmud New York, adds caution to how innovation may be embraced by the establishment: “My fear is that “innovation” will become nothing more than buzzword that is being repeated into meaninglessness within the Jewish organizational establishment. It is crucial to encourage and embrace new approaches to our work, but overemphasis on innovation as a panacea to the challenges of Jewish communal life may very well lead us to disappointment” By highlighting these issues, Joshua and David outline that clarity of understanding and sincerity of approach are needed for genuine improvement offered by Jewish innovation and the place this has within communal leadership relations.

If our Return On Investment is to have far and wide impact, Jewish innovation must engage with a critical mass and access the mainstream.  If the “Jewish” in these innovations is to guide people in new yet still value driven ways, we must ask ourselves: what place do our texts, traditions and culture, and our communal institutions have; How do we create in a way that connects with what has already been created?

The current Jewish innovation may not transform Jewish life in a way that impacts the Jewish people as Rabbi Yochanan did. However, if the right frameworks are established between Jewish innovators, and between Jewish innovation and existing communal structures, we may create enough dynamic and diverse platforms of Jewish affiliation so that there are more values and endeavors that unite us than where we disagree.

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