The Jewish Futures Conference: The Conversation Continues

by Russel M. Neiss

“Open Open Open Open Open Open Open” – Lisa Colton, from Darim Online
@ 7:29 AM Nov 8th via Twitter for iPhone

Last Monday, at the Jewish Futures Conference, Charlie Schwartz and I laid out a vision anchored by four core and overlapping values for the future of Jewish education:

  1. Open, Discoverable & Accessible;
  2. Remixable;
  3. Meaningful and Relevant; and
  4. Community Building.

While we have had many illuminating conversations since our presentation, the questions and feedback we have received overwhelmingly surrounds the first value of “Open, Discoverable and Accessible.” A number of people of asked us, “How can we incentivize people to create open resources or content that are essentially given away? How do we compensate people for their work? How are you going to foster innovation, if you want people to give their stuff away for free?”

These are essential questions, and ones I think the non-Jewish world has what to inform us about.

Google, 3M, and other companies that value innovation understand that part of ensuring innovation is giving their employees and staff members adequate time to think, explore, and experiment. In doing so, Google allocates 20% of an employee’s time to be devoted to their own exploratory projects (3M offers 15%). Put another way, Google subsidizes one day a week of an employee’s time to work on whatever technological side-project they want to work on. If a project has promise, it’s folded into the general production schedule of these various organizations and becomes a core offering. Gmail, one of Google’s core services began as a 20% time project, and those ubiquitous PostIt Notes, began when a 3M employee was spending his 15% time trying to figure out how to keep the bookmarks in place in his church hymnal.

The idea for the Jewish world is similar. While few institutions and organizations could allow for a full 20% of an employee’s time to be devoted to their own initiative, imagine the potential innovation that could occur if educators were given the opportunity to devote a few hours a week to develop innovative curriculum on subjects that are dear to them that would be the property of the “Jewish community.” Or if Jewish coders spent 90% of their time doing traditional tech work for various organizations, and the last 10% was subsidized to allow them to create resources, platforms or technological tools that could be deployed in various Jewish settings. Imagine if 18 hours a month of a senior Jewish leader’s time was subsidized to allow them the opportunity to mentor new leaders in their field. Or think about what would happen if an organization offered an afternoon off once a month to anyone who would participate in an approved social justice cause.

While this cultural change won’t happen overnight, it would be interesting to see what could happen with a small investment in a pilot project. The potential transformative impact of allowing the individuals who already work in the organized Jewish world to think beyond their institutions’ walls for even a few hours each month, I believe has the ability to generate more social good than many other initiatives requiring much greater community investment.

Russel M. Neiss is the Academic Director of Technology and Media Services at the Rodeph Sholom School in NYC, and moonlights as the Co-Founder and Lead Coder for The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle


  1. says

    As a staff member at The Jewish Education Project (formerly BJENY-SAJES) I would like to respond to Russells comments regarding the viability of Jewish organizations to provide opportunities for their staff to add to the collective creative pool. I count myself amoung those that are already experiencing the beginnings of this type of work environment. I am encouraged to take initiative, and supported in translating those initiatives into frutition, our department uses intentional “play” time together to explore our potential, we learn together about the value of experience, and are continually challenged to contribute to our collective vision. This enviroment excites me – and stimulates my energies toward pulling the Jewish educational community toward the future – which is already here…drumming its fingers waiting for us to wake up. This atmosphere is emerging as the status quo here at The Jewish Education Project, and as a sponsor of the Jewish Futures Conference I can say from my perspective anyway, we are taking the right steps to not just to “talk the talk,” but to “walk the walk”.
    Debbie Seiden
    Project Manager, Project InCITE
    The Jewish Education Project

  2. says

    Thanks Russel for the important post.

    As you know, I create content and curricula fulltime, AND give it away for free at (We’re on MediaMidrash.)

    We want to be as open, discoverable and accessible as possible and have featured Creative Commons licensing on our videos for three years now as well as offering downloadable lessons plans that thousands of you have downloaded.

    That said, each time we ask for online donations to support what we’re doing from our user base (maybe 3 times a year) we raise about $1300, tops. We are so grateful for those donors who respond. Yet $1300 pays for about two minutes of animation, and zero anything else – curriculum, overhead, the rent…

    So who pays for G-dcast? We are 100% foundation and major donor funded so far. Every grant application asks us what we are doing to become financially sustainable.

    I’ve been bloodying my forehead for two years now trying to answer that question. I’ve learned from institutions that they can’t (or won’t) pay more than a few hundred bucks for a speaking gig – so that’s not the model. I’ve learned from curators that the budget for installations of video art is only a few thousand dollars per site, and that my costs will basically make such ventures break even – so that’s not the model. I refuse to put advertising on a Torah website – so that’s not the model, and even if it was, advertising is beer money, not revenue.

    In two weeks, we will offer a DVD for sale. It will be interesting to see if anyone is willing to pay for it and what the market will bear for high quality content that costs a lot to produce.

    In the meantime, what’s more important to me than “open and “free” is “high quality and “thoughtfully produced.” I truly hope we can be ALL of those things because the market tells me you can be one or the other (unless of course a big donor steps up as a patron).

    Let’s prove the market wrong. And let’s back up our rhetoric with dollars, supporting the projects that make thoughtful, high quality work free and open. Naturally, I’m biased. :-)


  3. says

    Jewish organizations will need to recognize that giving away content is a gateway drug to further involvement. Google gives away Gmail and YouTube because they get you to spend more time on Google, and ultimately in front of advertisers. The Jewish community should give away G-dcast because generating interest in Torah will generate interest in synagogues and bar mitzvahs and day schools. If the Jewish community were a big tech company, they’d just acquire a little startup like G-dcast for millions of dollars and your sustainability problems would be gone (alas, along with creative control) but I’m not sure what the analog is in religious education.

  4. says

    Russel – Thanks for “retweet”! I was so thrilled at The Futures Conference to look around the room and engage in conversations where people really “GOT” the open point you were making. And then they embraced “remixing” because the open made so much sense. I was glad to see the maturation in the conversation that happened that day.

    As I read your description of a possible “brain bank” or organizational generosity, what occurs to me is a university model (which, I admit I don’t know all the much about, but what I do know…) — where a science professor does research, teaches courses, mentors grad students, files patents (on behalf of the university, and also perhaps under their own name) and also consults privately on their area of expertise. These responsibilities cover a lot of ground — charting new territory, empowering the field (and the future of the field), and creating revenue streams. I wonder what an analogous model might look like for us, that benefits the individual, the organization and the community as a whole.

    Not a simple nut to crack, but definitely something worth continuing to think about and experiment with — we can’t even imagine what the returns might be yet… Onward!