by Dr. Jonathan Woocher
Jews have a thing about the future. We gave the world the Messianic concept, the vision of a future in which the world is perfected and peace and justice reign. But, we’re also perennially anxious about the future. An updated version of the old telegram joke might go: “What’s a Jewish tweet? ‘Start worrying; Facebook update follows.'” Historian and philosopher Simon Rawidowicz called Jews “the ever-dying people” because of our persistent penchant for fearing that each generation of Jews might be the last. In our own time, we have lived through the era of “Jewish continuity,” determined and sometimes feverish efforts to secure the Jewish future against the perceived threat of intermarriage and assimilation.
When we launched the Jewish Futures Conference a year ago, we took a different tack toward the future, one more in keeping with computer scientist Alan Kay’s advice: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We saw evidence all around us that Jews are indeed inventing an exciting, vibrant future. Yes, there are real challenges: The world is changing very rapidly around us, and Jews are changing with it. But, the raw material out of which to create a future that, while hardly Messianic, is one that we can anticipate with enthusiasm, is at hand. The question is whether we are ready to embrace fully the possibilities that exist today for reshaping Jewish life so that we can thrive as individuals, as a community, and as a people in the new environment we inhabit.
The goal of the Jewish Futures Conferences, the second of which will be held in a few weeks at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Denver, Colorado, is to stimulate conversation among the diverse groups that will determine our future – everyone from high level federation leaders to teenagers – about the visions and values that should guide our ongoing journey. As has been the case throughout our history, learning – Jewish education – will play a pivotal role in shaping both the content of these visions and whether, how and for whom they will become integral to living a meaningful, purposeful, fulfilling life. The second Jewish Futures Conference, like the first, will bring diverse and fresh, even unexpected, voices to this conversation in order to challenge and inspire us to seize the potential of this moment and to imagine where it can carry us.
The theme for the upcoming Conference is “the Jewish learner as ‘prosumer.'” The concept of ‘prosumers’ – people who are at once consumers and producers of the ideas, experiences, and cultural products that give shape and substance to their lives – aptly describes a growing number of today’s Jewish learners.
Increasingly, Jews of all ages are stepping forward to become “co-producers” of their Jewish lives. They are no longer content simply to absorb what others, figures in authority, have prescribed as the way things are to be done. They want to have an active share in the doing, the interpreting, the applying, and they want to do so together with others – Jews and non- Jews – similarly energized to learn and to teach.
Today’s technology makes prosumerism more widely achievable than ever before; it empowers and connects in unprecedented ways. But, in fact the prosumerist idea is not a new one. It is built into the fabric of Judaism itself, where Jewish learning is not limited to an elite caste, and the chain of tradition asks each of us to create new links, new midrash. The ideal of a globally interconnected learning and creating community is perhaps more realizable today than ever before in Jewish history.
What kind of a future can emerge from taking up this opportunity and unleashing the prosumerist potential of the present moment? We don’t know precisely, which, of course, is exactly the point. We will be creating it – together. We can hope, though, that it will be one in which many more Jews are engaging in a wide range of activity motivated and shaped by a passionate and expansive sense of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century – activity that will expand Jewish learning and culture, strengthen Jewish connections, repair society and the world, and enrich their own and others’ lives.
At the Jewish Futures Conference we will experience for a few hours what such a future might look and feel like. Three keynoters coming from different vantage points – Chris Lehmann, educator extraordinaire; Tiffany Shlain, prize-winning film maker; and Lisa Colton, social media guru – will encourage us to unleash the creative power that we collectively possess to shape new realities. Covenant Award winner Shai Held will use Jewish text to provoke us to think more deeply about how we use this power. New voices – two winners of a world-wide video competition and two teenagers – will share their visions of what we might create, exemplars in their own right of how empowered prosumers are already coming to the fore as creative forces in Jewish life.
William Gibson, the science fiction writer who gave us the term “cyberspace,” argued that “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” The Jewish Futures Conference organizers heartily agree. Jews may never put their anxiety about the future entirely behind them (and perhaps never should, at least till we reach that Messianic era). But, we have also never let that stop us from seeking to draw on the wisdom of the past and the possibilities of the present to create a better future. That work continues today, and the Jewish Futures Conference is ready to celebrate it and to ask us all: how can we be part of this historic venture?
The Jewish Futures Conference is presented by JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute and the Jewish Education Project, with support from a growing number of collaborating organizations and sponsors. Read more at jewishfutures.net. Register to the GA at generalassembly.org.