Let’s Bring Innovation Into the Fold

Pop quiz: What Jewish organization that didn’t even exist 10 years ago reaches more than 400,000 people nationally and accounted for $100 million in economic activity in the last year alone?  Hint: It also manages to reach 7 percent of American Jewry while costing just 1 percent of the total national Jewish GDP (as calculated by JInsider.com’s Mark Pearlman).

Give up? It’s not a single organization at all; it’s an entire landscape of emerging projects, initiatives and communities that are transforming Jewish life in the 21st century.

Los Angeles is home to more than 25 startups launched in the past 10 years, part of a growing national wave of Jewish innovation. This creative outpouring is documented in Jumpstart’s recent report, The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape, published with The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. As our report demonstrates, the innovation ecosystem — more than 325 new initiatives nationwide — is not a fringe phenomenon, a novel outreach strategy or limited to any single generation. Rather, it is the leading edge of the American Jewish community’s transition into the 21st century.

The shifting landscape of Los Angeles is a microcosm of the Jewish future. L.A.’s Jewish community is a diffuse, non-hierarchical and self-organizing patchwork of networks and communities, each serving the fluid and porous identities of their constituents. That makes it an ideal laboratory for the Jewish communal paradigm of the 21st century.

Startups in Los Angeles reflect the diversity within the larger national innovation ecosystem. New spiritual communities like IKAR, Nashuva, Shtibl, Valley Ruach and a host of independent minyanim and alternative prayer groups have opened new doors to Judaism for thousands of Angelenos. Organizations such as Big Sunday, Jewish World Watch and Progressive Jewish Alliance have motivated and organized members of the Jewish community and beyond to work to repair the world and support the vulnerable. The Professional Leaders Project and DeLeT are developing new professional and volunteer leadership. Established institutions have pioneered new programs that attract a new generation to Jewish engagement, such as AJC ACCESS and ATID/Friday Night Live. Social networking startups such as JconnectLA, JQ International, and Sababa connect young Jews to one another. Jewlicious and LimmudLA are transforming the experience of Jewish learning. Dynamic national startups such as JDub Records and REBOOT have an L.A. presence. Civic engagement organizations like 30 Years After and The LEV Foundation are voices for policy and advocacy within and beyond the Jewish community. 

Despite the emergence of many exciting new initiatives in Los Angeles over the past several years, the Jewish community doesn’t yet have a comprehensive support system for local innovation. The Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation have provided important sources of innovation funding, alongside a handful of prominent local independent philanthropists who have supported innovation both locally and nationally. 

But foundation and major-donor funding is only part of the picture.

A well-planned strategy for the sector as a whole would incorporate innovation as an essential part of philanthropy and program delivery in both new and established institutions. Established organizations would recognize and welcome innovators’ new ideas and adapt them for the benefit of the broader community. Funders and grantees would work collaboratively to solve bottlenecks in the grant-making and reporting process. Large institutions and startups alike would embrace every feasible opportunity to collaborate and cooperate to reduce costs. And success would be measured by the collective impact of the ecosystem, not just based upon the success or failure of a particular program or organization.

We have the local resources, talent pool and market potential to create that future. We also have a passionate Jewish population — at least within the minority of Jewish Angelenos who are actively Jewishly engaged. Among them are the thousands who are involved with L.A. Jewish startup initiatives — a vibrant alternative market for creative approaches to building community and living Jewishly. These emerging spiritual communities, social justice organizations, learning initiatives and cultural collectives do not just provide new entry points to Jewish life for individuals and families who otherwise would not be engaged. They also are the source of many of the ideas that will transform Jewish life in the 21st century. 

Los Angeles has the opportunity to emerge as a leading force in the future of Jewish life — to be a vital center for the current wave of creativity and innovation. But this can only happen if community leaders recognize that opportunity and work together to embrace it. Working together, we can go beyond simply sustaining Jewish life, and start leading its transformation.

Joshua Avedon and Shawn Landres are the founders of Jumpstart (jewishjumpstart.org), an incubator, catalyst and advocate for sustainable Jewish innovation.