How much is Jewish innovation worth?

On May 8, in a very cool space in Culver City, I listened to a hundred very cool people talk about their very cool vision for the Jewish future.

The occasion was something called — OK, bear with me — “ALCHEMY: The Science & Art of Jewish Innovation: an evening of thought-provoking learning and conversation presented by the Joshua Venture Group, Jumpstart & LimmudLA with the Joshua Venture Fellows.”

I know, almost as long as the production credits for “Prometheus.”

But this title at least shows there is a bull market in Jewish innovation. Groups like these have arisen, at least in part, to find, develop and fund young, or young-ish, Jews who are trafficking in innovative approaches to Jewish life.

Indeed, “innovation” is the hottest word in organized Jewish life these days. Say you are doing something “innovative,” and Jewish organizations will roll out the welcome mat and funders will prick up their ears. To what do these young people owe their windfall? Three things.

First, society has never looked more kindly on innovators. We all live in the post-Jobsian glow of the next new thing, and it’s no surprise that a people who lay claim to the “Start-Up Nation” are particularly susceptible to start-up ideas.

Second, there is a deep fear among the older Jewish generation — the people giving away the money — that Judaism is losing its hold on the younger generation of Jews. “Innovation” is the solution begat by the last buzzword of Jewish anxiety, “continuity” — the fear brought on by the 1990 Jewish Population Survey that younger generations of Jews are detached, assimilated or marrying out of their People. In Los Angeles, of course, we have zero proof whether this is still true because, unlike in other large Jewish communities, there has been no subsequent scientific survey. (New York just released a new comprehensive survey this week, as it does every decade.) But, hey, data is so old-fashioned.

Third, social media has made the cost of seeming to build an organization or movement fairly cheap. Your parents’ chavurah never had more than 15 people in it, and their synagogue maybe only had 500 members. In the Internet age, 500 is how many people join Facebook every minute.

I’m not saying that the organizations that presented at Alchemy were not thoughtful or serious or worthy. Just the opposite. To become recipients of Joshua Venture grants, they had to prove their abilities at organization and leadership. Nati Passow of the Jewish Farm School, Eli Winkelman of Challah for Hunger, Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek and Alison Laichter of the Jewish Meditation Center, to name a few, all spoke impressively.

The Alchemy organizers asked me to listen to the evening’s worth of these and other presentations and then, at the end, “synthesize” what had been said, especially in the context of the Los Angeles Jewish community, in a final wrap-up speech. I did just that, but with the fair warning that as a columnist it takes me at least a week to think on my feet. The interim has allowed me time to innovate some further thoughts.

I told the Alchemy attendees, first, that I was humbled. 

I said that they do need to recognize that they are just the latest in a long line of innovators. In fact, the coolest, youngest innovators I know in the Jewish community are all between 60 and 90 years old. Think about it: Rabbi Marvin Hier created the Simon Wiesenthal Center out of thin air. Rabbi Uri Herscher built the Skirball Cultural Center from the ground up. Rabbi Harold Schulweis has been at the forefront of the chavurah movement, the righteous persons movement, the Jewish response to Darfur, the acceptance of converts and intermarrieds. Rabbi Laura Geller keeps creating new models for women and synagogue leadership. There’s Brandeis-Bardin, the Shoah Foundation, the Israeli Leadership Council and everything the Cunin family initiated years ago — I mean a Chabad telethon.

Today, the institutions these men and women built look like … institutions. But in their day, they struggled against a status quo that, to put it mildly, did not welcome them with grants and conferences. What looks mainstream today was anything but at the conception.

The lesson from this is that innovation is not new: It is built into Jewish life. That’s because Judaism itself was once an innovation — a radical departure from the status quo that realized only through balancing tradition with hiddush, innovation or renewal, can a culture move forward and thrive.

And that’s what leads me to my caveats and worries: I wonder if true innovation among young people isn’t hampered, rather than helped, by our rush to reward innovators with grants and aid. If innovators have an idea and don’t get communal monies to pull it off, can they develop the skills, or cojones, to just strike out on their own and sustain their ideas, like the Hiers and Herschers did?

It’s one thing to create the next new Web site or cool organization, but lasting innovations have always been solidly linked to visionary leadership, often forged in adversity, and committed for the long haul.

I would hope, too, that existing Jewish organizations understand the benefits of bringing young innovators on board, of just saying yes to more outside ideas, if only to save on the money and energy expended to start yet more groups.

And finally, I hope — pray — that grantors balance their eagerness to fund “new and cool” with the much less sexy need to fund “old and sick,” or lonely and disabled, or poor and weak. Maybe we as a community are so awash in money that we can afford to spend millions getting perfectly healthy, smart, upper-middle-class Jews excited about Judaism and Israel. Fine. But before we spend a penny there, let’s make sure we have taken care of the needs of all those who otherwise could use that money: the Holocaust survivors, the working poor, the hungry and disabled and ill. That’s not innovative. It’s just Jewish.