Wisdom of layers: Reflections on the Collaboratory

“What am I supposed to wear to a ranch?” 

The “ranch” in question was the headquarters of the Leichtag Foundation, a major funder of Jewish and Israeli causes, headquartered in Encinitas, Calif. (in northern San Diego County). My snow-logged East Coast pals were consulting me on wardrobe for The Collaboratory, a 24-hour gathering at the ranch for 140 innovators, activists and entrepreneurs to “gain new connections, new skills and new energy to take back to your work,” as organizers promised. My major piece of advice: “Bring layers.” And they did. Not just literally, in their suitcases, but also metaphorically, in their skills and networks, forming a delightfully complex and multifaceted presence. 

Although it has always been true, only now, in this hyper-connected time, have we become acutely aware that when we see someone, we are also seeing his or her social and professional context. We try to peel their layers, playing Jewish geography to help us collate them into our own contexts. Who do they know? Who have they worked with? Which organizations have supported them, and which have abandoned them? 

Having been involved with this sector for more than a decade, I also see the network layers. For me, The Collaboratory itself is a microcosm of people from different towns and countries, with familial layers — cousins, friends, neighbors, partners and exes — even the ones I don’t know, if you go not-so-far back, we’re all connected. 

The gathering was created by a number of the major Jewish innovation groups, all of which I’ve worked with in some capacity over the past decade. Former and current Upstart Bay Area and Bikkurim fellows peppered the room, representing projects that stretch back to the early Jewish innovation years. Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation partners and ROI Community members were also present, from ROI cohorts stretching back to the first annual summit experience for young Jewish innovators in 2006. I recognized some participants as empowered leaders whose projects have been strengthened and amplified by the Joshua Venture Fellowship. PresenTense-trained social entrepreneurs from different cities represented their own organizations as well as the intensive fellowship itself. 

The Los Angeles innovation cohort was well-represented, including gap-year program Tzedek America, philanthropic research and design lab Jumpstart, Silverlake Independent JCC, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, crowd-funding platform Jewcer, Jewish Entertainment Network LA, Moving Traditions, Venice’s Open Temple, Moishe House, Neesh Noosh (writing on faith and food, as seen in the Jewish Journal) and USC’s Center for Religion & Civic Culture. The layers of overlap between and among these network circles reveal different cities and projects, but a similar dedication to new ways of creating meaning. 

Innovation translates texts into new vernaculars: visual, auditory or experiential. The five performances of the “Collabaret” showcase illustrated this perfectly. Comedy duo YidLife Crisis (Eli Batalion and Jamie Elman) showed an original Yiddish comedy sketch with English subtitles. Alicia Jo Rabins from Girls in Trouble applied contemporary song styles to classical narratives, using a looping pedal to record and play back in layers over previous ones. Miriam Brosseau from Stereo Sinai played original songs, influenced evenly by pop music and traditional texts. British import storyteller Rachel Rose Reid performed a narrative poem — spoken word and song commissioned for a festival marking Woody Guthrie’s centenary. And Jay Stone beat-boxed a Michael Jackson medley, and then the Shema. 

As emcee, I stepped onto the stage between acts, sharing interstitial comedic bits (in one case, a spoken word response to our beloved Pew Study) and performer bios, and watched the room from a literal step above. I could see our affiliations hovering above us, intersecting in broken and solid lines of connection. I remembered “The Source,” the James Michener novel about a tel — a hill whose layers contained the remnants of several civilizations, hundreds or thousands of years apart — in the cross section, you could see some of the pieces, but you had to unpack the layers to learn their stories.

Innovators are the next generation of farmers in this work, overturning the layers, mixing in new seeds in old earth, taking the things we know and adding layers of meaning and relevance. The application of a contemporary cultural gloss on passed-down traditions is simply a new fertilizer to activate growth. 

While many “Collaboratorians” work to create meaning for the innately fundable “next generation” (widely defined as those in their 20s to mid-40s), others work on a larger communal level. All of them know that tradition and the embrace of new modes of Jewish storytelling — regardless of age group — requires a consensus that can be challenging to obtain. But now there’s an international collective of wisdom that can be dipped into when innovators face challenges. 

“Innovation starts from a discipline of discovery,” said Collaboratory keynote speaker and innovation strategist Lisa Kay Solomon. For participants in the Collaboratory, who are inclined toward this “discipline of discovery,” knowledge of the diverse skills, interests and personalities within a network is a first step toward the spirit that unites them as they continue their layered work of continuity, creativity and collaboration. 

Replicating revolution: Reut Institute advances 3-D printing for all

Few aspects of Israeli society are dearer to the national identity than its high-tech sector — a class of entrepreneurs so churning with ideas and innovation that they have earned Israel the title of “startup nation.” 

But can this legacy last forever? Research from the last few years has shown that Israel’s startup model is no longer sustainable, according to the Reut Institute, a forward-looking think tank formed 10 years ago by Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli peace negotiator, to help inform lagging government policy in Israel. 

“What does it take for a country to lead an industrial revolution?” Grinstein asked during an interview at the institute’s sleek maze of offices, located among the tech warehouses of northeast Tel Aviv. “Generally speaking, what you need is broad exposure, broad literacy, a very large pool of talent — and out of this talent come the leaders, the entrepreneurs, the managers.” 

By contrast, Israel’s current model — based on a few bright minds and a limited pool of seed money — “is extremely exclusive,” Grinstein said. “Very few people participate.  So in order to make it inclusive … we went open source.” 

The Reut Institute took action on its findings in winter of last year, embarking on a wildly ambitious mission to familiarize the entire Israeli population with what Reut leaders, and tech experts around the world, are calling the centerpiece of the third industrial revolution: the 3-D printer. 

By layering many razor-thin sheets of a material on top of one another — most commonly using a simple type of plastic called polylactic acid, or PLA, in a liquid form that dries quickly — 3-D printers can render 3-D computer designs into a fully functioning object in a matter of hours. This technology is the closest humanity has come to inventing touchable e-mail, Willy Wonka style: All one has to do is send a 3-D design file and a recipient can print it out on the other end. Some of the machines can even print chocolate. 

And Israel, as the Reut Institute sees it, has the potential to lead the revolution. Reut has so far opened three public 3-D printing labs — in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Bat Yam — part of a rapidly self-replicating Cross-Lab Network (XLN) that uses its own minimalist 3-D printers to print more printers that can populate new labs, at very low cost ($400 to $600 per printer, according to lab managers). The “great-grandmother” of the printers, which to the untrained eye looks like a high-tech Tinkertoy, has a special spot on the shelf at the very first XLN location, in Tel Aviv. 

By the end of 2014, Reut CEO Roy Keidar, head of the XLN, said he hopes to open 15 more labs across Israel. And five years from now, the goal is to expand to between 30 and 50 locations. 

The Tel Aviv workshop, a bright-white basement littered with plastics and computer chips and half-built gadgets, recently celebrated the first graduating class of its weeklong “Maker’s Academy” — a crash course in 3-D imaging, printing and programming that Reut hopes will bring together and train the future leaders of the network. At the event, one 14-year-old from Haifa showed off his robot, which waves its hands when a motion sensor tells it someone is near, and L.A. native Ari Platt unveiled complex plans for a medical device that uses spatial recognition to help doctors improve their precision during surgery. 

Seen from above, this image shows an open-source 3-D printer built and used by Reut Institute’s XLN Initiative. Photos courtesy of the Reut Institute

“I came here, and they really taught me the basics of programming,” said Platt, who added that he had barely any technological experience before the course. “Now I understand [the technology], and I feel much more comfortable using it. I wouldn’t mind going online and trying to teach myself. Before, I would never have gotten close to it. 

“Once you get down to the basics,” he said, “you realize it’s not so hard. People get afraid of things that are unknown.” 

Scientists have predicted that in the not-too-distant future, 3-D printers will be capable of spitting out full-scale buildings, space bases, working human organs and beyond. 

This news, of course, comes as no surprise to the Internet’s tech-nerd community, which has been sharing open-source 3-D printing designs on Web sites like Thingiverse.com for years now. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also jumped on board in 2001, and started setting up a series of professional-level 3-D fabrication laboratories, or “fab labs,” around the world — of which there are now almost 150, including one in Jerusalem and one in the Israeli suburb of Holon. 

But in the last year, world leaders have started to take notice as well. 

“A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address. “And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.” 

Earlier this summer, the commercial potential of 3-D printing reached new heights when the largest manufacturer of 3-D printers, Stratasys — co-headquartered in the United States and Israel — bought up MakerBot, a more low-end 3-D printing company that got its start selling home-assembly 3-D printer kits. Together, analysts have predicted that the two companies will vastly expand 3-D printing at the consumer level. 

Another Israeli startup, Something3-D, has big plans to “put a 3-D printer in every home” in Israel, according to business journal
The graduating class of the first Makers Academy. Among those in the class are: back row, left, Etai Evenhaim, and back row, third from left, Ari Platt, both of L.A. Standing, far right, is Arnon Zamir, XLN’s Chief Operating Officer. Second from left, third row, is Sefi Attias, XLN’s Chief Technology Officer, a graduate of YULA in Los Angeles.

Reut also has put a strong emphasis on designing cheap and customizable devices for people with special needs: In late August, the institute will host an intensive 3-D-design competition for special-needs devices. Competitors are currently pulling all-nighters in the lab, shaping entries such as a hearing aid that can attach to a smartphone, a computer mouse for a person with arthritis and customizable glasses for kids. 

The only rule: Entries must remain open source. 

“Our purpose is not to build a high-end printer that will compete with $20,000 printers,” Grinstein said during a tour of the lab in Tel Aviv. “Our objective is that you’ll have Israelis from all over the map understanding what is a 3-D printer, building one, designing stuff, participating — and those who take to it will eventually become the leaders and the entrepreneurs.” 

Experts at the Reut Institute aren’t the only ones to warn of the potential downfall of startup nation, if access to modern technology and cutting-edge education does not become available at all levels of Israeli society. A recent Google Israel study, whose results were published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, found that “in the last decade, an unacceptable gap has developed between the integration of ICT [information and communications technology] into all aspects of life and the reality in Israeli schools, and between Israeli schools and those in the other countries.” 

To meet this challenge, the Reut Institute is working with schools and other learning institutions across Israel to set up 3-D printing labs within existing structures, with financial help from city governments. The lab in Bat Yam, for example, is a collaboration with the Branco Weiss School for At-Risk Students. “The students really responded to the machines,” Keidar said, “and to this method of using their hands.” 

Reut hopes to reach every level of Israeli society by setting up 3-D labs in unlikely places, such as the low-income kibbutz town of Kiryat Shmona, the heavily Arab town of Sakhnin, the heavily Orthodox town of Tsfat — even one day in Ramallah in the West Bank. 

“The [economic] model of the Israeli government failed to deliver on the pledge that growth will trickle down, so our challenge is to generate inclusive growth — growth that includes all the population,” Grinstein said. 

At Reut’s Tel Aviv location, that dream is having growing pains. At the first Maker’s Academy graduation, of almost a dozen participants, Grinstein noted that no women were present but was proud that about 20 percent of graduates were in the racial minority.

“Next time, if we still have 100 percent males in the graduating class, it will be a problem,” Grinstein said. He explained that in order for women — especially religious women — to be attracted to the XLN, “they need to trust the environment.” 

These nameplates were produced by pupils at the Branco Weiss School for At-Risk Students during their first course in 3-D printing.

Reut is also fighting fears that the 3-D revolution could be more of an apocalypse. The sexiest controversy of the 3-D printing era, both in the United States and Israel, has been the big 2013 reveal that the printers can print gun parts that would otherwise require a license to buy in a store. Cody Wilson, a Texas law student, opened up a fiery debate about the future of tech crime this spring when Forbes published proof that his 3-D-printed firearms were fully functional and downloadable from the Internet. Although he has since removed the code for the gun from his Defense Distributed Web site, it is by now hosted on countless other sites — perfect proof that lawmakers can’t fight open-source sprawl and will need to find new ways of policing the products of the 3-D era. 

In Israel, this July, Channel 10 news reporter Ori Even sneaked a plastic, 3-D-printed pistol into parliament and pointed it at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while a TV crew filmed his trembling hand. The controversial report proved that in security-obsessed Israel, officials must race to fit policy around the future of technology. 

Leaders at Reut said that although 3-D-printed weapons pose a major regulatory challenge for lawmakers, any new realm of technology will have a dark side — and the institute’s mission is to “focus on the good, and the opportunity.” 

The future of Israel as a global economic leader could depend on it. 

“This is about the fundamental learning that Israel’s society and economy need to go through in order to survive and thrive in a world of self-manufacturing,” Grinstein explained, pointing to a dizzying graph of the startup-nation model that had been left up on a dry-erase board in the Reut offices. 

“Our vision here is not just 3-D printing, not just a network of communal technological spaces — our vision is Israel leading the coming industrial revolution.”

$20,000 fund to advance Jewish innovation in Australia

A $20,000 fund to advance Jewish innovation in Australia was launched by the ROI Community, a global network of young Jewish innovators, and Australian Jewish Funders.

The Dave Grants—named for Dave Burnett, a young Australian Jewish leader and ROI Community member who died in an accident in 2008—were announced last week at the Australian Gathering For Young Jewish Leaders in Melbourne. More than 50 of Australia’s future Jewish leaders convened to discuss ways to engage more Jews in Jewish activity.

The grants will support collaborative projects born out of connections made at the gathering that have a fresh and dynamic approach to Jewish community-building.

Burnett, an alumnus of Birthright Israel, led the Australasian Union of Jewish Students and was an elected leader in student politics at Sydney University.

“Dave personified all that a community might look for in a young leader and everything a person might look for in a friend,” Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, which includes the ROI Community, said in a statement. “Dave’s passion for Jewish life inspired this fund, which will support collaborations between young Jewish social entrepreneurs in Australia.”

Cardin added, “In order to engage more young Jews in the community, we need to embrace new and innovative approaches, and we believe that the grants will empower these young activists to create change for themselves and for the broader Jewish community.”

Israeli innovation shines at Mobile World Congress

Israel proved itself to be a leader in technological innovation based on its strong showing at the Mobile World Congress.

Some 100 Israeli companies participated in the mobile industry’s largest annual event in the world, held in Barcelona, which ended earlier this month. The event brought about 67,000 visitors and 1,400 companies to Barcelona to show off the latest advances in the field.

The joint national effort by the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute and the Foreign Trade Administration of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor resulted in some 2,000 business meetings between Israeli and foreign companies. Israeli exhibitors reported on closed deals, advanced negotiations and breakthroughs with the world’s largest mobile operators and hardware and device manufacturers.

The show was an “unparalleled success” for Israeli companies, according to Ramzi Gabai, chairman of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute.

The Spanish publication elperiodico.com wrote, “Although a small country with barely 7 million inhabitants, it’s a leader in technological innovation. Proof of this is that Israel has at its disposal one of the largest showcase pavilions at the Mobile World Congress.”

Some of the mobile technology innovations Israeli companies brought to the congress included fixed 3G car phone devices, telemedicine devices and satellite communication systems.

Innovation Israel tries innovative approach

Blame it on coinciding with the Grammys and the Jewish Federation’s annual Super Sunday, but only 15 people showed up at the Feb. 13 L.A. leg of the nationwide tour of “Innovation Israel: Shaping Israel’s Future. Today,” presented by the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, and PresenTense, an incubator for ideas empowering the Jewish community. To the organizers, Israel’s stars are its social entrepreneurs solving social problems through innovative ideas.

Social entrepreneur Romi Shamai kicked off the event by blowing bubbles the size of beach balls into the small crowd. While earning his degree in physics, he developed a special soap solution for what he thinks is one of the happiest substances in the world: bubbles. His idea blew up into Baabua, a business that gets people blowing huge bubbles at events.

Baabua also created peula.net to help people post, share, track and rally letters of complaint and requests to businesses and to government offices.

“I started to think while studying, ‘How can I make a difference and help professional people act upon their social problems when they are busy with their professional life?’ ” Shamai said.

Another presenter, Elyssa Moss Rabinowitz, intentionally started her talk with a boring, text-heavy source sheet on a famous talmudic passage.

“I felt there was a strong disconnect between people sitting in the world of study, whether academic universities or yeshivas, and the rest of the Jewish world that doesn’t have that opportunity and access,” the Berkeley native and Bar Ilan University alumna said.

She co-developed Kol HaOt: Illuminating Jewish Life Through Art, an alternative educational institute and content provider aimed at making Jewish study a sensory experience through the arts.

Next up was Chaim Landau, an Israeli immigrant who observed how Americans studying in Jerusalem often get their opinions about the Arab-Israeli conflict from secondary sources — whether media or pundits. He developed Perspectives Israel, an apolitical organization that forges interactive encounters with people at the heart of the headlines, from peace activists to settlers.

“I want to give them an opportunity to go out and meet a variety of Israelis and understand the human dimension and many voices that you have in a healthy democracy like Israel,” said the bespectacled Landau.

But the organizers and speakers also wanted to get the crowd to visit Israel as the place to be for start-ups dealing with Jewish social change.

Landau concluded his story with, “Create your own story with us.”

Don’t cut support to innovative nonprofits

From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, the impact of the global financial crisis feels like an eerie parallel to the days after Sept. 11. No one knows whether the acute phase is over or whether there will be further shocks. For some, little has changed; for others, life will never be the same. Everyone knows someone who has been directly affected.

Our major institutions are struggling to adjust, react, prepare but most of all to respond to those most harmed. News outlets strive to explain and advise; houses of worship have added services; social service agencies brace for increased demand even as they anticipate reduced charitable and government support. Each organization is focused on what it can do to minimize and mitigate the effects of the crisis on our city, our country and our world.

Amid this outpouring of effort, we have been dismayed by intimations, in the Jewish media and elsewhere, that smaller, newer nonprofit organizations will and perhaps ought to lose funding support in order to allocate more to immediate concerns: a warm meal, a place to stay, income stabilization. While we agree that protecting the most fragile is key, we disagree with this last-hired, first-fired funding mentality.

The argument against the new nonprofits is both simple and disingenuous. The simple argument is that they are risky investments, ephemeral champions of the latest passing fads. The disingenuous argument is that these innovators are self-indulgent narcissists, insubstantial and erosive of the communal fabric. These arguments are not only wrong, they are counterproductive.

Far from risky ventures, new start-ups like Darkhei Noam, Hadar, Jewish Milestones, IKAR and the Progressive Jewish Alliance actually are fulfilling the promise of engaging a new generation of Jews in their own idiom and on their own terms. It is this generation’s connection to Judaism that ultimately will determine the future of Jewish life and of its larger institutions. They build innovative new minyanim and educate young leaders who in turn will strengthen their communities. They develop, test and promote new models of community involvement that will be the foundation for generations to come.

From Hazon to Jewish Mosaic to Matan to Sharsheret, they use new tools and methods to promote environmental responsibility, ensure our community welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, widen the reach of special education and put resources into the hands of those afflicted with deadly diseases — all missions at heightened risk in the period of social and economic turmoil we are entering.

While the big boys debate scalpels and hatchets, these new start-ups quietly perform laparoscopies without cutting open the patient. Bootstrapped together with all the advantages of today’s cost-saving technologies that many established Jewish organizations have yet to discover, these start-ups are models of industry and investment that will help America emerge from recession. They can feed for a year on what their larger brethren consume in an hour. They are lean, staffed more austerely than their older, bigger peers and subsist by sweat equity donated by those for whom they mean a great deal.

Putting the attention on new start-ups distracts us from asking the tough questions of our most venerable institutions, many of which have lost sight of their original missions in the struggle for institutional survival.

But these start-ups are also fragile, without reserves to fall back on, and do not yet possess long-term funding relationships to be called upon in times of crisis. They lack the confidence and reputation — and the sheer seniority — conferred on larger nonprofits by decades of service. Questioning the viability, merit or necessity of nascent nonprofit organizations risks becoming self-fulfilling. Moreover, it’s unfair to do so without also challenging the unquestioned assumptions governing larger nonprofits.

New ventures are essential to our recovery and are ideal places for funders to invest to stabilize the community. Individual or institutional funders seeking ways to make fewer dollars go further should take a closer look at the group of emerging nonprofit organizations ready to rise to the occasion if given a chance. These new groups do far more than put on hip-hop concerts and publish risqué magazines. From a communal investment perspective, these organizations provide tremendous value.

Just as after Sept. 11, the priority is on rebuilding — not only our portfolios but also our souls. We must succor those re-examining their values and goals, and support those for whom economic distress leads to personal distress. Financial crisis is often the mother of religious crisis, during which the quest for meaning becomes not only more potent but more critical. It is precisely in trying times that we must focus on efforts that can best distill and transmit the essence of Jewish values in today’s complex and decentralized world.

The age of an organization doesn’t correlate to the significance of its mission. In 1798, when our new nation faced a grave economic and political threat from France, John Adams summoned leaders of each of the nation’s diverse faiths to organize “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer,” during which citizens were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it.” The message was clear — strengthening committed communities strengthens our nation.

The new groups formed by our most gifted social entrepreneurs are just such committed communities — some religious and others not — and now is the hour when they can do their finest work.

Shawn Landres is the CEO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation in Los Angeles. Toby E. Rubin is the founder/CEO of UpStart Bay Area, igniting Jewish ideas and supporting Jewish start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Martin Kaminer is the New York-based chair of the board of Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.

Could economic slump — which means less giving — kill Jewish community innovation?

The past decade has seen a groundswell of innovative Jewish nonprofits — from the birth of a Jewish pop culture magazine, Heeb, to the creation of a slew of trailblazing Jewish social service organizations, to an array of projects that allow Jews to express their Judaism through ways other than the prayer book.

But as these initiatives reach adolescence and eye expansion, the spiraling economy and financial crisis threatens to stunt their growth and thwart the next generation of startups from even getting off the ground.

Story after story has been written about fears that the economic downturn will hurt philanthropy. The thinking goes that when people feel economically unstable, the first thing they do is cut their discretionary spending — and charity, no matter the moral or biblical obligation, is still viewed by most as discretionary spending.

Until recently, most of the concern had been based on speculation; charities had been holding out hope that they would be able to avoid significant cutbacks. But, according to a survey taken in late September by the private wealth research firm, Prince & Associates, the cuts have arrived.

According to Forbes magazine, Prince spoke to 439 high-net-worth families, with 73 percent of respondents saying they had been significantly hurt by the economic downturn. Fifty-one percent said they planned on giving less next year than they did this past year — and only 16 percent said they planned on giving more.

The concern about such trends was detectable recently at the Manhattan launch party for the 2008 edition of “Slingshot,” an annual guidebook to innovative Jewish organizations put out by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation. The leaders of several of the most well-regarded and established innovative Jewish projects expressed concern, saying they are expecting to feel the pinch.

“Most recently, we are starting to hear, ‘We love what you do. We think that it is really, really great. And because of the economy, we are not going to fund any new projects this year. We are going to fund the things that we already fund.’ And that is only over the past few weeks,” said Aaron Bisman, who runs JDub, the nonprofit Jewish record label that produced Matisyahu’s first album. “I had heard it was maybe going to be a possibility, but we are really starting to hear that as a definitive answer.”

JDub, the product of two incubators of Jewish startups, Bikkurim and the Joshua Venture, is widely regarded as one of the most successful young Jewish projects to get off the ground in recent years. For the last five years, Bisman’s budget has increased as funders have taken notice of the group and JDub’s record sales have started to bring in additional income.

Early this summer, Bisman was talking about expansion. Those plans were based on being able to tap into new revenue streams, attract new donors and entice foundations to become new investors.

But by late September, Bisman was talking cutbacks — in both programming and staff.

Bisman’s experience reflects what most philanthropy experts see on the horizon. Philanthropists may not completely shut their coffers, but new grants — the lifeblood of young organizations — are going to be the first to get cut because, like any investment in any startup, they are risky proposals that may not pay dividends.

“Everybody is looking to this as a real event that they are dealing with, and especially for groups that are young and startup and in a growth phase, it is challenging,” said Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, the cofounder of Kehilat Hadar, an egalitarian, traditional-style minyan in New York that is a model for the independent minyan movement.

Hadar has yet to lose any grants, but Kaunfer has been told to brace for next year.

That is when the real crunch could come, especially for those who rely on funding from endowed foundations. Those foundations are required by law to give away 5 percent of their assets each year, based on the assets from the previous fiscal year. As the market drops, that 5 percent shrinks, leaving less for foundations to give away.

To put it in perspective, the Washington Post reported that the Community Foundation for the National Capital Area, one of the area’s largest grant makers and comparable in size to the Koret Foundation, the Pritzker Foundation and the Mandel Fund, lost about $40 million between July and September. The fund had approximately $330 million in assets at last reporting.

Back in 2006, Hadar was able to raise enough funds to launch an egalitarian yeshiva. Kaunfer said he’s unsure if the founders could have pulled it off in the current climate.

“Today would be a very hard day to start an organization and raise the soft dollars,” Kaunfer said.

Such projects — especially those focused on building Jewish identity — could be facing an even greater challenge in the coming months if they need to compete with social service agencies that are getting squeezed on both ends as they face greater demand for services and shrinking revenue streams.

But a bad economy does not need to be the death knell for Jewish innovation.

Those who run new organizations that have established a foothold for themselves and are looking to grow, like JDub, have won recognition in the Jewish organizational mainstream. Their leaders have become regular speakers at federation events and at the federations’ annual conference, the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

At last year’s GA in Nashville, organizers dedicated a plenary session to young Jewish innovators and gave them a chance to address several thousand federation lay and professional leaders. Though they will have to work hard to secure funding, many of them have at least one foot firmly in the door.

And most of the newer operations have an advantage over established organizations: They tend to operate on relatively small budgets of under $2 million and so are not yet in need of megagrants.

There may even be hope for those looking to start nonprofits, as the Joshua Venture — the incubator that helped launch this movement, but then went on hiatus in 2006 — has announced on its Web site that it is now seeking new applicants.

Nina Bruder, who runs the UJC-funded incubator Bikkurim, said she is hopeful.

“When the economy is bad, the need for basic human services goes up and the funding for basic human services goes down,” she said. “In the circles that are concerned about that, there is going to be a big push about [the fact] that basic subsistence needs are going to have to be met.”

“But I think there is a whole other part of the funding community that doesn’t focus on that and still has an attention for other kinds of creative cultural and special needs areas,” Bruder went on. “I think we are going to have to wait and see what happens.”

This article was adapted from Jacob Berkman’s blog on the nonprofit sector, which can be found at www.fundermentalist.com.

Courage and Innovation

If you want to follow the thread of religious innovation and ethical behavior in modern Jewish life, you won't need to stray far from the career and philosophies of Rabbi Harold Schulweis. In fact, you probably can't confront those topics without confronting the work of Schulweis.

Since he was ordained in 1950, Schulweis has challenged the status quo with an intellectualism and a fearlessness born of the confidence that moral rightness is on his side.

He broke ground with his interfaith dialogues and by achieving ritual equality for women. And he insisted on a Jewish responsibility to respond to any suffering anywhere. More recently, his acceptance of gays and lesbians as Jews with full and equal standing, as well as his outreach to non-Jews as potential converts, made national headlines, as had many of his earlier efforts.

Through his powerful speaking style and many books and articles, Schulweis has forced the Jewish community — and particularly his own Conservative movement — to confront inconsistencies and to rectify traditions or notions that no longer made sense, whether in liturgy or on issues of social justice.

This week, his congregation of 35 years, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, is paying tribute to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday with a dinner and a series of dialogues over several days. These conversations are featuring Schulweis' selections of the top Jewish intellectuals of our day, including Rabbi David Hartman, founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; author Rabbi Harold Kushner; Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation; and David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (see their tributes below).


Born in the Bronx in 1925, Schulweis grew up with a father who was a socialist Zionist. His father's object of worship was not God or Judaism, but the Yiddish language and culture.

His zayde — his mother's father, Reb Avraham Rezak — was a displaced shtetl Jew who chose not to work so that he could sit and study the sacred texts every day. Schulweis spent long hours learning Talmud with zayde.

His formal schooling began at a Yiddish school, but the young Schulweis soon transferred to a yeshiva day school. He went on to high school at the Talmudical Academy in Manhattan, and then to Yeshiva University (YU), also in Manhattan, where he majored in philosophy.

Soon before he graduated YU in June 1945, Orthodox Jews began burning the prayer books of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, then at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, and later a founder of the Reconstructionist movement.

Curious as to what kind of writing could merit such a strong reaction, Schulweis began to read Kaplan. What he found was a traditionally observant Jew with a willingness to question what had been done in the past, and to think about what ought to be done now. Kaplan's prayer book was burned because in it, he challenged the references to sacrifices saying that no one actually wanted to engage in animal sacrifice in the future. Kaplan made room for women in religious services, contending that if no one really believed women to be inferior, why should ritual treat them so?

Schulweis, accustomed to what he calls “quotational Judaism,” where the past was paramount, became inspired by the idea that he could have an active place in the tradition.

“It changed the way in which you looked at life, because it suddenly makes the present tense as important as the other tenses in Jewish life,” Schulweis said.

Soon after, he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he became a student of Kaplan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another leading thinker and activist of the generation.

While he was in the seminary and simultaneously earning a graduate degree in philosophy at New York University, he met Malkah. She agreed to marry him on their fourth date. (She had refused on the third.) Fifty-eight years later, the couple have three children and nine grandchildren in Israel and California.

After publishing his first book on the philosophy of religion, Schulweis taught for a short time at City College in New York, a stint that he enjoyed but that convinced him he needed the interpersonal relationships of congregational life.

In 1952, he took a pulpit at Temple Beth Abraham, a Conservative congregation in Oakland.

“I enjoyed the West, and I felt it would be more open to experimentation ritually and in other ways,” he said.

It was there that he introduced the notion of counting women in a minyan and of allowing girls to participate in coming-of-age rituals through bat mitzvahs. He took his philosophical cue from Kaplan, but these practices had not yet been implemented in a congregation. He also replaced the traditional sermon with a question-and-answer dialogue that is still a hallmark of his services.

In Oakland, where he stayed until 1970, he also began his lifelong work in interfaith dialogue and in forging a relationship with the black community. Also, while in Oakland, he established a foundation to recognize and reward Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazis.

Soon after Schulweis arrived at the Conservative VBS in 1970, he noticed that people were leaving the synagogue for more intimate prayer and study gatherings in people's homes. He co-opted that idea and brought it into the synagogue community, breaking his large congregation into smaller havurahs or social circles. That idea has become a mainstay of synagogue life around the country.

The psychic health of his congregation also motivated him to found a paracounseling center. Today, trained volunteers counsel 100 people a week in group and individual sessions.

His outreach to unaffiliated non-Jews over the past decade has earned him both condemnation and accolades, but in the years since he began reaching out to potential Jews-by-choice, the Jewish community has become more open toward converts and to non-Jews who are part of Jewish families.

His 1994 Rosh Hashanah sermon advocating the acceptance of gays and lesbians as equal and beloved members of the Jewish community earned him a standing ovation.

His reaching out has included opening doors to physically and mentally disabled children and adults by setting up support and educational groups in his congregation.

Recently, with the help of active lay leaders at VBS, he founded Jewish World Watch. The organization's goal is to make sure Jews follow the example of righteous gentiles by helping to alleviate and stop global suffering. Jewish World Watch, based at his temple, has already raised more than $100,000 to build medical clinics and wells in Sudan, and has helped Jewish high school students raise awareness of the crisis in Darfur.

In accomplishing these ventures, Schulweis credits the suportiveness and alacrity of his congregants, whom he says move quickly when he issues a call to action.

He also treasures the mutually respectful relationship he shares with Rabbi Ed Feinstein and the other rabbis at VBS.

Last fall, Schulweis stepped aside so that Feinstein could assume the role of senior rabbi. Feinstein will now set the vision and the agenda for the congregation, but Schulweis has no plans to give up any current roles, including teaching, speaking and attending to the personal and life-cycle needs of his congregants.

“The word retire in French means withdraw, and that's terrible,” Schulweis said. “It's not in my nature. I love being a rabbi; I love this congregation, and I'm not the kind of person who goes on cruises. You spend all your life trying to do certain things and perfect and hone your abilities and insights, and now is not the time to leave.”

Q & A

Jewish Journal: You have a history of anticipating — or more accurately, creating — the next big thing in Jewish life. You envision something, and you go after it. How do you arrive at what the next big thing is?

Harold Schulweis: I'm a rabbi. All my life is dedicated to Jews and Judaism, so I listen and I hear. One of the advantages you have as rabbi is you are told things.

Let's take the example of havurah. I know that people are lonely. I can see that they don't have friends in the congregation. We have 1,700 families in the congregation — how do you humanize it?

[Rabbi Mordecai] Kaplan said something I remember so clearly: In order to have religion in common, you have to have other things in common besides religion. Religion is way of life — it is way of dancing, singing, laughing and celebrating together. And that motivated me to create havurot.

It's not just being creative — it's responsiveness…. I introduced the [dialogue during Torah reading], because I watched people leave the shul in droves whenever the Torah was read, and I said, “That's wrong — this is the most important part.” Now people come davka [specifically] for the commentary.


JJ: Has this willingness to challenge the status quo, to demand consistency and honesty from the Jewish community, gotten you in trouble?

HS: It really has not gotten me in trouble. In fact, it's the other way around. I have 18 years and 35 years at my congregations. I find that people will accept contrary things if two conditions are met: They believe that the man is serious and sincere, and they also have to hear him give the argument.

When I changed the notion of a minyan in Oakland [so that women could be counted in the quorum of 10], it took me about a year. I had Sunday morning coffee and conversation and addressed all the concerns. And when we moved bat mitzvah from Friday night to Shabbat morning, Hebrew school enrollment doubled. Doubled.

Without seeming to be immodest, Mordecai Kaplan said that a people lives or dies from the top. And I think it's true.


JJ: When our chapter of Jewish history is written, how do you think this era will be depicted?

HS: I am sanguine about the future, because I think there are more people who take Judaism seriously — I am talking about in the intellectual world — and who are being read and are convincing people.

And I am very impressed with California, which since I have been here has been transformed; in terms of the Skirball Cultural Center, which is a great contribution; in terms of the University of Judaism, [which is Conservative] now ordaining rabbis; in that Hebrew Union College [-Jewish Institute of Religion which is Reform] ordains rabbis, and in terms of the huge success of the camping movement.

I think what is not happening, what I would love to see, is the Conservative and the center Orthodox explaining more. What kills me is that complexity and daring is not expressed anymore. I didn't learn it in yeshiva, and I didn't learn it in the seminary.

In that sense, I'm pessimistic. I think the laity is ready for it, but I don't think the leadership is developed that way. What I'm doing shouldn't be exceptional, and the fact that it is [is] the sign that something is wrong.


JJ: What do you think the biggest challenge is for today's Jews?

HS: I don't think that they are getting the best of Judaism, neither in the seminary world, nor in the synagogue. I don't think the variety and the heroic aspect of Jewish thinking is portrayed or evoked or transmitted in the Hebrew schools, the day schools, the seminaries, the yeshivas or the synagogue, and that is a pity.

What if zayde's grandchildren came to shul and opened a prayer book and said, “From this I'm going to deduce what are the most important values to the Jews?” What do you think they are going to get out of this? And if they come on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah? They will go away with the position that there is a decree of life and death. No one is telling them, “You are partners with God. You are the feet and hands and mouth of God.”

What scares me most is what we do to our children. We have [denominationally] segregated our children — whom we allegedly want to marry each other, and now we're not even so sure about that. We send our kids to separate day schools and Hebrew schools and camps, and they do nothing together; they don't even play together. And then you say clal Yisrael [the entirety of the people Israel], ahavat Yisrael [the love of Israel]? Baloney.

When I went to yeshiva college, I was impressed with Plato and Aristotle and Hume and Kant and Hegel, and now they are telling me in these Orthodox yeshivas that this secular wisdom ought not to have the same attention paid as the Talmud. [Rabbi Joseph Baer] Soloveitchik [of Yeshiva University] wasn't afraid to keep citing Heidegger.


JJ: You seem very focused on issues that are particular to the Orthodox community.

HS: That is a very perceptive notion. It is because I have great respect for the Orthodox community, for their sincerity. And that is why I want to see them prosper.

I had a very good experience in the yeshiva world, but I would not have had that experience today. I really would not. I think today they would throw me out. In my day, I was not less liberal, but they embraced me, because they believed in the Yiddische neshama [the Jewish soul].

Secondly, I do notice my best intellectual friends are Orthodox. This is the point I want to make: The new age is going to be trans-sectarian. You can't categorize. Labeling is finished. You can't tell who's a Conservative Jew — you don't know what it means, which kind. I think if we are not going to break through this denominational divisiveness and smallness, we'll lose them all.


JJ: I am sure that in your 35 years here you have received offers from other synagogues, from academic institutions or from organizations for national leadership positions. Why did you stay at the pulpit?

HS: Because I found that grassroots are very important. The truth of the matter is my inspiration for my sermons are my people. In my book, “For Those Who Can't Believe,” look at who I dedicate it to, and that is your answer. “To the men, women and children of Valley Beth Shalom, who possess the wisdom to question and the courage to hear.”

I understand why they can't believe, because what they can't believe, I can't believe either. But at least I know I have options.


JJ: What is the wisdom of 80 years?

HS: One of the wisdoms is to struggle against idolatry. Idolatry means the worship of a part as if it's the whole. For example, intelligence is important and books are important, but if you worship intellect and books alone, that is idolatry, because there is more to life and the human experience than just simply how smart we are.


David Ellenson will be the guest speaker Friday, April 1 at 8:15 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information call (818) 530-4088.

“There is no rabbi like him in this century. He has deep compassion for the lost and the lonely, be they here or in the Sudan.” — Rabbi Steven Jacobs, senior rabbi of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills
“He's one of the most important reasons I'm a rabbi, because of his heroism, his sense of what's right. He may be 80, but he's the youngest rabbi with a mission I've ever met.” — Rabbi Ed Feinstein, rabbi of VBS
“He was the instigator of a program called Response — a highly successful support group for gays, lesbians and their families. The position he took in the Conservative movement was very courageous.” — Alvin Rabin, former board chairman of Valley Beth Shalom
“He has a tremendous intellect matched only by the depth of his soul, and there's an inherent kindness that marks his personality. His various social action projects and the calls for openness in our community have combined to make him the leading pulpit voice in the U.S. today.” — Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
“It was a great experience meeting [Rabbi Schulweis]. I was a bit nervous at first, but he made me feel comfortable and he didn't treat me like a little baby. He even made me feel older. And I learned from him that I should think more of others and be more inclusive, of non-Jews, too. That's his legacy to me.” — Julian Ozen, 12-year-old VBS Day School student
It's because of him the JFR is giving out $1.3 million to non-Jews every year, to those who helped Jews in the Holocaust. He's a tzadik (righteous one). He's the Energizer Bunny; he just keeps on going.”–Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR)
“He is one of the most distinguished rabbis in America, with his combination of intellectual force and his very powerful moral dimension. Despite the fact that he is a Conservative rabbi, his messages are challenging and relevant to all the religious groups. –Rabbi Yitz (Irving) Greenberg, president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
“For years I've believed that he is the finest rabbi in America. Some rabbis are scholars, some are teachers, some are organizers and some are administrators. But you can never find one who is all those things, except Harold Schulweis.” — Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
“I've always looked up to him, ever since I came to VBS in first grade. He's always seemed so intelligent, on a separate level of intellect to others. Being in his class these last couple of years has exposed him to me on a really accessible level. I was expecting his teachings to be antiquated, but there's a very modern aspect to him, and I never really picked up on it until I was in his class.” — Brian Lehrer, 18-year-old VBS Day School student
“I served as the first woman president of the VBS congregation in 1982. And it was Rabbi Schulweis' voice and intellect that gave empowerment to the laity of the congregation and put an end to genderism. He has taken ancient texts and made them relevant to our times.”–Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, VBS board member
“I was a student in his confirmation class 10 years ago, when I was a rabble-rouser with a militant form of skepticism. He definitely transformed that into a real desire to embrace more broadly what our religion has to offer. His class and his book, “For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles of Faith” (Perennial 1995), showed me the true way of grasping a belief in spirituality.” — David Carpenter, lawyer and former student of Rabbi Harold Schulweis
“I certainly consider him as my rabbi — for he is the rabbi of rabbis. He demonstrates a standard of rabbinic leadership, which I feel is truly outstanding in modern Jewish life.” — Rabbi Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center
Quotations compiled by Staff Writer Kelly Hartog.