By Jon Woocher
When we initiated the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, we did not know what to expect. Would organizations be interested in a competition that asked them to describe how they were “applying Jewish wisdom” in their activities? Would they even understand what we meant by that phrase? Would we find a handful of examples or more than a few? Would the organizations who understood themselves to be applying Jewish wisdom in their work be able to demonstrate that their programs reached a significant number of participants or had any impact on them?
Now that the inaugural Prize competition is reaching its final stages, with the winners due to be chosen this month by a panel of external judges, the answers to some of these questions seem clear. Well over two hundred organizations submitted programs that sought to apply Jewish wisdom in a wide variety of ways to a broad range of life concerns, reaching diverse populations. But even more impressive than the number of programs was the quality of reflection revealed in the submissions. We asked applicants for the Prize (among other questions): 1) What Jewish wisdom they use in their work; 2) How their program makes this wisdom accessible and applicable to their audiences’ lives; and 3) What they have learned about applying Jewish wisdom. Their answers to these questions provide a wide window into a phenomenon in American Jewish life that we now have reason to believe is both more widespread and more impactful than has previously been recognized. Amidst the hand-wringing about assimilation and disaffiliation that often dominates discussion of the state of Jewish life, we see enormous grass-roots energy and creativity in developing new forms of Jewish self-expression and community-building that surveys simply cannot capture.
Fully mining the treasure trove of information contained in the 200 plus Semifinalists for the Prize (all of the program profiles are available at www.lippmankanferprize.org) will take many months. We plan to share our own ongoing analysis of the applications with you on a regular basis, and we invite others to use the database (including supplementary materials on many of the programs that we will be happy to make available) for their own inquiries and research.
Based on an initial reading of the submissions, we can offer a few findings of note that bear further investigation and elaboration:
1. Program developers and sponsors are not shying away from incorporating serious Jewish content in their programs, but are acutely aware of the need to make this content relevant to their audiences.
Far from offering a “Judaism lite” approach, many of the programs submitted incorporate original Jewish texts, traditional Jewish practices (even including some that might be labeled “esoteric”), and serious encounter with these as important components. At the same time, programs strive to connect these to real life interests and concerns of participants and to empower participants to engage actively and creatively, not just passively, with these wisdom elements. Many programs are explicit in articulating the Jewish values and concepts that they seek to embody and to transmit, and they present these as directly relevant to the lives of their audiences.
2. There is virtually no area of contemporary life that is not addressable and being addressed by Jewish wisdom.
The breadth and diversity of areas where Jewish wisdom is being actively applied today is impressive. The programs submitted for the Prize cover every age and life-stage and bring Jewish teachings and practices to bear on everything from physical well-being to spiritual development to social change to planetary sustainability. Programs are applying Jewish concepts and values to investing, parenting, food production and distribution, addiction recovery, negotiating adolescence and ageing, building caring communities, making art, developing leaders, and a myriad of other areas that reflect both timeless human concerns and timely issues. Although it is certainly true that not every Jew has access to the full range of these programs – many are local and relatively small, it is also true that these programs demonstrate the nearly unlimited potential of Jewish wisdom to help people live better lives and shape a better world.
3. “Jewish wisdom” is a compound of teachings, practices, and relationships.
Perhaps the most far-reaching finding from an initial review of the submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize is that “Jewish wisdom” as embodied in these programs is more than an intellectual construct. Yes, teachings – ideas, concepts, values – are central to what nearly all of these programs seek to convey. And, indeed, many of the programs include study and discussion of Jewish texts, classical and contemporary, as an important component. But, the majority of the programs also involve two other dimensions that make “Jewish wisdom” something more powerful than merely a set of ideas. Many of the programs embed their teaching in a set of practices that bring these teachings to life. These are not only how wisdom gets “applied,” but how it gets conveyed, in ritual (traditional and new), in artistic production, in work to make change in the world. There is a second key element as well in these programs: the fostering of relationships. Many of the programs submitted not only transmit ideas, they create communities. How teachings, practices, and relationship-building work together to create impact – to change lives – is one of the aspects of transmitting and applying Jewish wisdom in the contemporary world that bears further examination.
These three initial “findings” from the set of submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize in Applied Jewish Wisdom only begin to scratch the surface of what we hope to learn from this rich data source. The individual programs themselves represent potential models for replication and adaptation – and we hope that people will find both inspiration and practical ideas in them. Taken as a whole, they present a portrait of Jewish activism and creativity that is exciting and energizing. Although only a few of the programs will in the end be the Prize winners, the real winners are all of us who are benefitting from these programs, whose lives are being bettered and who are finding in Jewish wisdom a profound source of inspiration and guidance.
Jonathan Woocher is Senior Fellow at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.