April 19, 2019

Discovering Our Commonality

Pick a right-wing Jew, A left-wing Jew, an Orthodox Jew, a Reform Jew, a secular Jew, a settler Jew and a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Jew. Now, assemble them into a creative team that has to work with one another to solve a problem by collaborating on evolving a big, breakthrough idea.  

The assignment has absolutely nothing to do with anything Jewish. 

What will come out of this exercise? 

The team will be thrown into a common struggle in which its members have to depend on one another. They will learn together how to dive into tension, hold that tension and then evolve an extraordinary idea out of that tension. Through the intimacy of this work, they will discover one another’s talents and personalities. They will jointly accomplish something that improves the world whether it is a product, a service, a cause or even an app. This process will have bonded them as human beings who shared a challenge in their lives and found a solution together. 

Now, can we stiff-necked Jews (an expression directly from the Torah) do this for the Jewish world? 

Creativity has a spectrum of powers. It is fueled by ideas. Ideas change the world, a community, a situation. Creativity becomes a common language between the creators, regardless of what languages they speak every day. No matter what opposing beliefs they have. 

We too often demonstrate that what divides us is stronger than what unites us.  

We Jews, regardless of our extreme differences, also share a common creative language and spirit. This reality made itself evident seven years ago when my good friend (and Journal Editor-in-Chief) David Suissa and I spent two consecutive, long, solid days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, consulting on the creative process with 32 Los Angeles-based Jewish organizations. It was after the first day of 16 organizations that David and I looked at each other and arrived at the same conclusion. We had just met in intimate conversation with Jewish organizations — right, left, religious, Charedi, secular, gay, social service, dating and synagogues — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Zionist — and found an uncanny common thread. 

These Jews were a very busy people, creating Jewish life through these organizations with a fervor that indeed appeared holy, whether they were believers or not. They were compelled to create this Jewish life, in all its diversity, from their souls. By having been immersed in this variety for a full intense day, we could now stand back and see these intangible Jewish realities and their vibrant commonality.

In the Jewish world, just as Hebrew is our common language, so is creativity. It has been with us since the second word of the Torah — barah — “created,” as well as in the story of Bezalel, who designed the Holy Ark. King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs, the musical backdrop to so many Israeli folkdances and Jewish weddings. We create communities and a country. We re-created our language. 

Jewish organizations and foundations indeed reward Jewish creativity. But the rewards are issued in vertical communities. We never look at the Jewish world as a whole. We never encourage collaborative Jewish creativity across our internal borders because we believe it is impossible. We too often demonstrate that what divides us is stronger than what unites us. 

I remember 35 years ago when the United Jewish Appeal branded itself as Am Echad, “We are One.” During the first years, we Jews were emotionally proud of that slogan. But as time went on, the slogan was killed in favor of the new reality we embraced that we are not one, we are many, we are diverse. True, but we are also one. Can’t we balance that tension and accept both? 

Perhaps our way forward right now, when we create so much grinding tension between us, is to assemble ourselves into creative teams, across all those Jewish boundaries. We would have to work together, see one another as human beings and partners, understand one another and then share the common excitement and accomplishment of evolving big ideas and solutions. 

We might find we even like one another.

Gary Wexler is an adjunct professor in the master’s in communication program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.