by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
“Funerals, while sad, are a celebration of a life and the impression that a single life has had on this earth. As such, there is such a thing as a good funeral.”
I remember hearing this in my practical rabbinics class at the Jewish Theological Seminary as we were learning how to give a eulogy. These words have come back to me over the past few days as I have read various responses to the news that JDub Records is closing shop. While I appreciate the thoughtful and eloquent comments of my colleagues, my own instinctive reaction has been quite different. Certainly, I share their sadness that JDub is closing its doors, but I don’t share their assumption that JDub’s life should be judged by whether or not it was sustainable long-term. While we are all still learning about this relatively new phenomenon in the Jewish world called “innovation” or “incubation,” what is clear to me from the JDub case is not that JDub was a failure, but that our expectations of innovative initiatives may need to be different.
In Jewish organizational life, we are quick to critique those institutions that have outlived their useful purpose but refuse to shut down. What we want to see in those cases is leadership who do exactly what JDub’s leadership have done: celebrate their achievements, allocate their remaining assests responsibly, and allow their leaders and supporters to move on to the next priority. So let’s pause and reflect on these steps to consider why they are important and what JDub teaches us about each.
Like a human life, an organizational life leaves an impression on the world in complex and unpredictable ways. Neither of these kinds of lives can or should be judged by their bank balance at the time of the funeral or the number of people who show up to mourn. Rather, they should be judged by the impact they have both during and beyond their lifetime.
I’m left with more questions than answers about JDub’s impact:
- How can we measure the effect that JDub has had on attracting attention to Jewish arts?
- Will we ever know exactly how it may have shifted the centre of gravity in the Jewish world and inspired other people and institutions to do what they do differently?
- Is its success simply that it was one of the key forces that initiated a culture of innovation in the Jewish arts community?
Just as a human life leaves an immeasurable impression on those people and institutions they come in contact with, so too does an initiative like JDub, no matter how short-lived it might be. A funeral is an opportunity to celebrate the impression that has been made by an individual, to reflect on what we have learned from him/her and to decide how we want to incorporate that learning into our lives. We need to do the same when an innovative initiative ends its tenure as an organization and ask: What do we want to celebrate? What have we learned? How can we continue to allow that learning to influence us even when the institution no longer physically exists?
Allocating Assets Responsibly
If indeed, we live in a brave new Jewish world where we embrace a culture of innovation, we must also accept that we don’t necessarily want all of the innovative ideas to become sustainable institutions. That would be a disaster – and unsustainable! Ideally, we want some of those new ideas to have their impact briefly and then return to the dust in order to be recycled and reborn again in some new form. In fact, a sustainable ecosystem of innovation would require “creative destruction” when an initiative has made its optimum contribution to society, instead of our continuing to invest in it beyond the point where it is providing a reasonable return on that investment. Instead, like human lives, we need institutions and initiatives to move aside and allow other projects to emerge in their place.
The real challenge in this worldview would not be long-term sustainability, but whether we can build nimble institutions that can deconstruct their infrastructure easily and share their intellectual, cultural, financial and human assets in a way that is truly recyclable without leaving too much waste or lost energy. Just as a “good” Jewish death includes robust reflection in order to leave a sensible financial and ethical will, so too, our institutions need to plan responsibly for their physical demise in such a way that their values and impact live on.
The coincidental timing of JDub’s announcement along with the Bronfman Philanthropies letter outlining their plan to spend down their foundation perhaps highlights what I hope is a trend. Perhaps we are beginning to see thoughtful institutions transparently sharing their knowledge and allowing those who come next to benefit from their knowledge.
Allowing Leaders to Move On
When I was doing my rabbinic training, the Wexner Foundation invested huge sums of money in providing me with both a formal education and a series of powerful informal experiences as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. There were those who argued at the time that this investment in a few single individuals was excessive. Perhaps they were right, but that investment has only continued over time with the Wexner Foundation nurturing an alumni community who have become a tremendous source of continuing professional, spiritual, and personal development for me. No one could have predicted at the time that I would choose not to dedicate myself full-time to congregational work, but I remember Leslie Wexner telling us that he trusted each of the fellows to discover what was needed in the Jewish community and then to do it. The Wexner Foundation invested in us as people and trusted that we would deploy ourselves well, either by creating new institutions or by making a contribution to existing ones. The success of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship programme is not determined by how many rabbinic fellows are in long-term congregational posts, but rather by whether we are deploying ourselves well in whatever institutions are the most effective ones for us to serve in.
Three months ago, I began serving as the Director of JHub, a programme of the Pears Foundation which incubates Jewish social action and innovation in the UK. While there are some who consider JHub as a vehicle to develop new organisations, I think of it differently. At JHub, we invest in organizations, but their success or sustainability is not the only measure of success. Even if a particular initiative “fails,” the amount of learning experienced by the people involved with it is part of the impact that it had. As I watch the various organizations in JHub, I see “leadership development” happening before my very eyes. These passionate individuals are learning organizational skills, developing vision, nurturing relationships, and gaining valuable experiences that they will take with them wherever they go.
Likewise, the founders and leaders of JDub will take their learning with them wherever they go. Perhaps in the same way that Wexner gave me a certain type of leadership training, those involved in the innovation sector are gaining a different but no less valuable type of leadership training. Some of the communal resources expended in the innovation sector therefore need to be viewed as an investment in future leaders of all types. Who can predict how Aaron Bisman’s experience of founding and running JDub might shape whatever he does next? In the same way as serving in the Peace Corps or spending four years at a top university shape those individuals and develop their leadership skills, so too does starting a venture – whether or not it “succeeds” as a long-term sustainable institution.
My Wexner network has shaped me as much or more than my JTS education or any single job experience. That fellowship has also changed the field and shifted the nature and methodology of Jewish leadership development. It was a powerful way of doing leadership development, but it is not the only way. I wonder if the Jewish “innovation sector” is perhaps a nascent version of the Wexner fellowship program, doing Jewish leadership development in a way that resonates for the next generation.
The Wexner Graduate Fellowship was an expensive leadership training model. Incubating new organizations is also an expensive leadership training model. Which is more effective? How can we measure such a thing? What is the added value that each model brings beyond developing the individuals who directly benefit from the programmes? These are questions worth exploring as we evaluate the “success” of JDub and other such initiatives.
In its short but vibrant life, JDub Records has:
- brought enjoyment and pride to thousands of satisfied music loves (Jewish and non-Jewish)
- offered superb leadership training to its founders and supporters
- inspired an entire sector of creative Jewish individuals to innovate and make a Jewish contribution to the arts
- created value that will hopefully be passed on by transparently sharing their final days and allowing us to mourn and celebrate with them
- encouraged us to debate and explore the role of innovation in the Jewish world
Let’s not judge JDub by their bank balance or the simplistic criteria of sustainability. Rather, let us accept the complexity that exists when people and institutions have impacts that go beyond what can be easily measured. As responsible investors, we certainly need to measure what is measurable, but we also need to accept (and even embrace) the mysterious ways that forces impact on one another. As such, none of us will ever fully know what the impact of JDub was, but we can and should use this as an opportunity to celebrate their contribution and hope that it will continue to have an impact long beyond their physical demise.
We raise our glass to you, JDub, and to those who gave life to you, supported you, and helped you reach this sad day.
JDub is dead: Long Live JDub.
Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is director of JHub (London, U.K.).
Here are additional responses to JDub Closing Up Shop.