Shai Litt’s entry in the Charles Bronfman Brandeis Contest for the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation is the formation of a Jewish Community Incubator that will be based in Israel with satellite locations throughout the world.
This is the second post in the Bronfman Big Idea series.
About the Author
Jeremy (Shai) Litt is a landscape architect whose work focuses on large scale environmental rehabilitation projects for public and private clients in Israel. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape Architecture and a Masters of Science in Real Estate Development and Investment.
Born and raised in the United States, Shai moved to Israel in 1996. He is married with four children, ages 10– 22.
What You Can Expect From This Post
This post is divided into four primary sections:
- Executive Summary
- The Jewish Community Incubator: Core Ideas– Jewish Activism Museum, Maggid Performance Troupe, Traveling Exhibition, Jewish Values Institute
- The Larger Vision
- Community Issues and Debates
We can’t wait to hear your thoughts and reactions on reading about this project idea.
1. Executive Summary
The Jewish Community Incubator’s (JCI) goal is that every Jew who visits gains a better understanding of their place in the Jewish community, a clearer perception of the obligations that are associated with belonging, and a heightened sense of mission and purpose.
Today, many Jews do not understand the significance of Jewishness and their part in the Jewish community. In general, Hebrew schools, museums, and academic curricula stress Jewish history, ethnicity, religious law, and culture. The JCI proposes a different institution– one that would stress Jewish values, their origin, and their relevance to living as Jews and Jewish communities in our modern societies, with the intent of demonstrating that there is a continuing value to being Jewish and to being part of the Jewish community.
Within a generation or two, the Jewish Community Incubator’s goal is to transform our community into one that sees our “Jewishness” in the quality of our commitments to shared Jewish values, enabling us to make our communities and the world a better place, while enriching our lives as individuals.
The Jewish Community Incubator: Core Ideas
The core components of the Jewish Community Incubator based in Israel are the:
- Jewish Activism Museum
- Maggid Performance Troupe
- Traveling Exhibition
- Jewish Values Institute
Keep reading for graphic representations of each of these below.
The Jewish Activism Museum
The Jewish Activism Museum will be a guided venue for teaching, exchanging ideas about, and illustrating the values that have shaped the Jewish people over time. The Museum will be imbued with a spirit in which Jewish values will be a substantive basis for retaining and building Jewish communal identity in the Common Era.
The Museum will focus on examples of how Jewish values and “Derech Eretz” (personal comportment) developed in four major historical periods of Judaism, and how they telescope into each other to form a basis for value-based action today. Guides will accompany visitors to engage them in discovering personal meaning from our Tradition and to help them develop personal mission statements based on their strengths and interests.
A primary component of the Museum will be the “Fifth Tier,” which consists of thousands of value-referenced practical examples of real people and real projects showing how the Jewish values learned in the four historical periods are manifested in our actions and sensibilities. This tier will be reproduced through satellites sites of the Museum, to be built in cities around the world with large Jewish populations.
Maggid Performance Troupe
One pedagogical tool for engaging visitors in the process of developing Jewish values for themselves and our community as a whole is the Maggid Performance Troupe. With a repertoire of approximately 100 vignettes, the Troupe utilizes a pedagogical method that is a cross between the Tana’aitic debates of 2,000 years ago and the Yiddish theater to draw visitors into the questions of applied ethics that sharpen the meaning and common vocabulary of Jewish values.
Another tool is the Traveling Exhibition, a double length bendable bus and “moving billboard” containing components of the Maggid Performance Troupe and the Museum that travels to Jewish communities, institutions, and schools that do not have easy access to the Museum or one of its satellites.
Jewish Values Institute
The Jewish Values Institute will be the research and development arm of the Jewish Community Incubator. Its physical facilities will house a library, classroom, and research lab where staff will prepare Jewish publications and media advancing the mission of the Incubator.
The primary objectives of the Jewish Values Institute are:
- Programming for strengthening values-based Jewish identity
- Facilitating dialogue about how a state can be both Jewish and democratic in a sovereign Jewish community
- Organizing events to promote the Museum’s priorities, as reflected through its exhibits and programming
- Creating and making accessible classes through the media of the internet for distance based learning in Diaspora communities (materials would be designed with sensitivities to sight and hearing impaired populations as well as the able-bodied)
- Initiating programs for strengthening values-based Jewish identity and values-based communal expression for college aged youth and Birthright participants
- Assisting Jewish federations in the Diaspora with values based action projects for the Jewish Community Incubators satellite sites
- Nominating and honoring Mitzvah Heroes (an idea developed by Danny Siegel of the Ziv Charitable Fund), whose actions have made a significant difference in promoting the Jewish community
One of the central ideas of the Jewish Values Institute is a volunteer activism program called “Ten-4.” The program would be based on a ripple effect modality in which 10 groups of 10 community representatives are taught and trained in methods of advancing Jewish values utilizing the resources of the Incubator, and they in turn teach ten more groups of ten– a total of 10,000 emissaries drawn from communities around the world.
Click on the video to see how these ideas would be physically manifested.
The Larger Vision
The Jewish Community Incubator proposes the collective cultural and traditional wisdom of the Jews as a basis for building our communities. It would draw on ideas about Jewish community that can be inferred from our traditional sources, and respond as well to criticisms of modern societies by social philosophers of our time, with the objective of developing an all-encompassing social milieu that is responsive to the challenges of providing an enriching community life in a world of fragmented, a la carte alternatives.
The Jewish Community Incubator would utilize four approaches to actualize this vision.
- Develop and make explicit a set of values that we as a community identify as “Jewish” (this task belongs to the Jewish Values Institute, as well as each one of us– the freedom to chose Jewish values is what gives Jewish values worth)
- Teach and live the values by developing a common “Jewish vocabulary” of words, thoughts, and historical background that act as a catalyst for action in our community, thereby developing our community’s common ground and sharpening our skills in defining that ground
- Provide a values-based context for the strengthening of organizations, such as Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), Federations, synagogues, Jewish clubs, camps, study groups, and day schools. By sharing common values and goals, we achieve not only the result of common efforts, but we also build a community in the process
- Reduce organizational barriers to achieving the above mentioned objectives by ensuring that the four factors that ensure good community are in place:
- Accessibility: participation in community life cannot be limited by how much money you have or whether you are a leader, a community professional, an academic, or take another role in the Jewish community. All that ought to be required is a passion to give yourself and advance the values you share with other members of your community. Your worth as a community member is measured by your commitment to the community’s values
- Influence: institutions are designed to influence, as well as to be influenced
- Efficiency: the effort to influence would achieve results in proportion to the effort expended
- Values: the values of the community are substantive, not merely formalistic, and are sufficiently shared by the community to form a basis for community identity and sustainability
To use computers as a metaphor, the Jewish Community Incubator is a new, intuitive, user-friendly interface for Judaism and Jewish communities that:
- Focuses on the importance of applications (deeds, mitzvot) as the essential purpose of the operating system platform (religion), and as a counterpoint to those whose predisposition is to focus almost exclusively on hardware and software specifications
- Does not require prior knowledge of DOS, Vista, UNIX, or Leopard operating systems (religious education or Hebrew) in order to gain functional proficiency and earn a place within the user community
- Permits users who are not part of existing Macintosh/IMB distribution networks (religious streams) to gain access to the power of the applications on terms better suited to their inclinations and budgets (their personal strengths and missions). Savvy computer users or those new to computers can become part of a broader user community by “mass customizing” their computers to “markets of one.” Once in the community, if their needs change, there will always be time to learn DOS and the other graphic interfaces, as well as to get a prepackaged computer from one of the distribution networks
Jewish values span the distance between anachronistic approaches to Jewishness and traditionalistic approaches, by supplementing rather than supplanting both individuality and religion. JCI provides a non-denominational, common umbrella under which all Jews, irrespective of traditional outlook, can without coercion unite as a community.
We live in an era where Jews have the mistaken impression that our values are universal and “Judeo-Christian,” and that the message our community can give to society therefore does not add any unique value above what we consider universal values.
MTV-type media influences affect our self-image more than any form of media did for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The sense that we have no unique ideological message then combines with an increasingly diluted or undefined Jewish “cultural” flavor to ravage the sense of identity we once gained from the venues that were our community institutions. Our institutions have become “just another place” to deliver services– and our heritage, culture and ideology “just another” of a wide variety of options.
In such a circumstance, when there is nothing distinctive about Jewishness ideologically or socially, we must ask ourselves, “Why be Jewish?” That the answer has not been clearly articulated underscores that our community has failed to understand itself and the importance of its continued existence. It is an indication of our community’s health that no answer exists.
Why Be Jewish? The Jewish Community Incubator’s Response–
The Jewish Community Incubator sharpens the definition of Jewishesness by teaching the substance of our values that are not utilitarian-based. They are shaped by synthesis and evaluation of competing claims that fold humane and Jewish sensibilities into the development of our communal mores. In the process of reclaiming our Jewish heritage for ourselves, a heritage based on Jewish values, the Jewish Community Incubator will reintroduce Jewish content into our lives and our institutions’ lives, thus enriching both.
We will provide a sense of community in an age of opportunity and options by showing how “community” contributes to living a good, meaningful life, and how Jewish communities can contribute to the societies they are a part of. Consequently, with time Jews will see greater value in maintaining our communities than abandoning them, and even those who at first do not see the personal gain to be had in investing in Jewish communities will later, after the benefits become clearer.
Inspirational Ideas on Creating and Enabling Community: Hayek and Mannheim–
The Jewish Community Incubator also addresses the claims that Friedrich von Hayek had (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) against Karl Mannheim’s theory in Diagnosis of Our Time (1943). Mannheim’s ideas are a precursor to the philosophical approach the JCI proposes. Mannheim claimed that good communities do not destroy personal freedom, they enhance it. Freedoms are maintained because they are informed by an “awareness” that the best of science and religion contributes to. Confronting life and becoming educated about it allows us to benefit from it, according to Mannheim. Community institutions should enable this paradigm.
Hayek countered by claiming that no “awareness” could offset the unpredictability of “the invisible hand” of motivations that determine whether efforts succeed. He claimed it is not in the modern era’s nature of thinking people to agree to be part of a group or to accept values other than their own. Lastly, and perhaps most damning of his claims about human nature, Hayek claimed that it is easier to get people to agree to what they do not want than it is to achieve agreement about what they do want.
Conclusion: Choosing to Be Jewish in a Jewish Community
The Jewish Community Incubator sits at the nexus between the argument between the “shareholder” approach of Mannheim and the “consumerist” approach of Hayek that predominates today. The question at the center of their debate about communities is, “Do we have a choice?” Are we destined to be a tempest tossed by the sum of self-interested actions, or are there efforts we can make to harness the tempest and salvage community from it?
Jews Today Have Three Options–
Jews have three options today. Those who are like Hayek would say that the time for change has passed, that our only real option is riding a deterministic wave. Any effort to save the Jewish community is pointless either because “community” is outmoded, and perhaps because Judaism is also outmoded.
The second option is to “rearrange the deck chairs.” We can paper over the shortcomings that are ravaging communities everywhere, shift our institutional weight to the other foot, make pronouncements, claim successes, become more “efficient,” elect “new leaders,” and all the things we have been doing and little else. We can, in a word, become better “consumers” of community. This is not very different from the first option.
The best choice is the last option. We should take Mannheim’s approach and embrace the richness of our Jewish communal tradition, eschewing the havoc of consumersist determinism. We must seek to turn the tide by rebuilding our communities, rebuilding ourselves, and in the process become better contributing shareholders of our community, our societies, and our world.
|Jewish Community Incubator— Overall View of Conceptual Site|
|Jewish Community Incubator— Overall View of Conceptual Site (broader view)|
|Entrance to Jewish Activism Museum|
|View of the Jewish Activism Museum (with “Sky’s the Limit” ceiling and five tiers)|
|View of the Maggid Performance Troupe Theater|
|Traveling Exhibition Bus|
|Jewish Values Institute Building (bridge leading from Jewish Activism Museum)|
|Temporary Exhibit Building with gift center, themed restaurant, and gathering space|
The Bronfman Contest also asks applicants to submit ideas for classes they would like to teach.
Shai Litt’s course would be called Innovating Jewish Communities and would center around the following questions:
- What is a community?
- How do community institutions contribute to and inhibit Jewish life?
- How can community resources serve to enhance sustainable Jewish community?
- How can we creatively enhance our communities?
- How do our attitudes about community shape our institutions, and how do our institutions shape us?
Here is a book list of recommended reading to learn more about the ideas discussed in this proposal, including some that would be taught in the course.
More information is available upon request.
So what do you think of these ideas? Are they valuable? How could these plans be further developed to meet your needs more fully? What are your reactions and thoughts?
We can’t wait to hear your comments.
Bronfman Big Idea Series, Proposal One: “Using the Internet to Fight Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism in Higher Education” by the author of the Anti-Racist Blog and Stop Campus Hate.
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