A Call for Chief Creative Officers (CCOs)

creative staffBy Josh Feldman

Creativity is powerful. As a creative and a Jewish communal professional myself, I have been thinking about how we infuse creativity into our field. How do we help organizations approach their challenges from new angles and with different processes? How do we help each other utilize technology in spunky, exciting ways that galvanize our bases? How do we create new Jewish art and culture that resonate for unaffiliated and post affiliated Jews? How much do our institutions say with their “body language”? Before we have printed one word, before we have given one speech, we should ask ourselves: Did we create work spaces that feel appealing, welcoming, and dynamic?
We are in the most disruptive technological moment in human history. That, combined with a drastically different economy post-great recession, means organizations can no longer afford to do business as usual. We can no longer treat creativity as a luxury. Not long ago we had robust, national Jewish arts and culture organizations holding at least part of this torch, helping us all think differently about the age old challenges we face. In the last five years, many of those projects, such as the Foundation for Jewish Culture and JDub, have sadly closed. So where do we go from here? What different approach could replace these national Jewish arts and creativity organizations?

As the Director of the newly created Institute for Jewish Creativity at American Jewish University I have the privilege to think about these questions. Over the last year, with the generous support of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Los Angeles, we have been consulting and training with local Jewish organizations. This coming year we will launch retreats, grants and fellowships all geared at celebrating, perpetuating, and enlivening Jewish life through creativity.

What if we introduce a new executive position in Jewish life, the Chief Creative Officer (CCO)? The idea exists widely outside of Jewish life. Noted examples include Geoff Johns of DC Entertainment (who make comics and films about them), or at Google’s Creative Lab, Chief Creative Officer Robert Wong. In fact, a precedent exists for this position within Jewish life as well. My colleague Rhoda Weisman was the Chief Creative Officer for Hillel International from 1994-2004. Rhoda worked with all parts of Hillel including the Senior Management team, local Hillel staff, lay leaders and board members. Rhoda and then president Richard Joel integrated a leadership and creativity development agenda into every aspect of Hillel with substantive results, including helping to spawn the now widely accepted young adult leadership development programs we see throughout the field.

In some contexts CCO’s are similar to a chief communications officer’s portfolio. In this case I am proposing a different set of priorities, including:

  • Supporting best practices. Helping organizations change the process of how they come to strategic and programmatic decisions, encouraging creative thinking, and highlighting effective creative work.
  • Developing skills. Offering internal and external training to develop creative skills such as design thinking.
  • Coaching executives on how they approach their work. Asking simple questions, and introducing new resources, including artists, to approach challenges.
  • Change internal cultures to have space for play, imagination and visioning to be more like startups and less like endless neon lit, cubical-dominated sadfests.
  • Bridge the divide between secular creative culture and what happens within the walls of Jewish organizations. After all, many of us are competing with every other offering, programmatically, every day of the week. This could happen through lunch and learns, fieldtrips and book club style learning.
  • Internal consulting. Be a resource for each department, with a flexible portfolio that can act in many ways like an internal consultant.
  • Integrating artists and culture makers by advocating for resources and helping institutions understand the value and expertise of artists, artisans and makers, and helping others understand the value of aesthetics and design.

Sceptics might suggest that we don’t have the resources for another executive position in Jewish life. For those getting caught up on the CCO position, let me share the bottom line: Creativity needs be a top priority for Jewish organizations – from our boards and executives on down. We need leaders willing to fight for the importance of this work, to help translate and explain, to grapple and explore.

The talent pool of culture creators couldn’t be more inspiring. What’s uninspiring is how little we are supporting and fostering them. Art and Culture will create the cultural artifacts that define the 21st century Jewish experience. 100 years from now I hope a student will understand the moment we live in through a film that portrays the deepest challenges we face. A song that asks questions still current as they battle to find meaning in their lives. Do you want to leave the importance of this legacy to chance? Because right now we are. As a creative evangelist, I may be biased but it’s easy to acknowledge how often the creative fields have affected us. Today we must ask ourselves: How can we feed that change back into the communities we serve?

Josh Feldman is the Director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity and Assistant Dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University.