A Case for Jewish Learning

Since its inception, UpStart has committed itself not only to strengthening the professionalism and efficacy of new Jewish initiatives, but also to strengthening the Jewish knowledge of the leaders and the quality of Jewish content offered by these initiatives. It remains unique in the network of Jewish incubators aimed at bolstering the Jewish innovation ecosystem, and begs the question: why is it important to engage the leaders of new Jewish initiatives in substantive Jewish learning? And, furthermore, why does UpStart believe that it is not only important, but ultimately intricately interwoven with the potential success of these leaders and their projects?

Hal Lewis, in a recent piece for eJewishPhilanthropy.com entitled Workplace Happiness and the Jewish Question, notes the disturbing trend that “talented young Jews … are opting for careers in the private sector. Those who have served Jewish organizations are burning out prematurely and opting to leave the field altogether.” In response, he cites Daniel Pink’s work Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“Workplace happiness is driven not by extrinsic considerations, but by intrinsic factors, identified by Pink as: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Thus, people are happy when they have some influence and control over their work – autonomy; when they grow and develop as professionals, improving their performance and acquiring new skills – mastery; and when they believe that the work they do matters, that their days are spent in service to something larger than themselves – purpose.”

Crucial to retaining talented individuals in the Jewish nonprofit sector, then, is assuring that these individuals grow in these three areas. Jewish entrepreneurs have a lot of autonomy; in fact, they have often chosen to leave other fields or jobs in order to start their own projects in the Jewish community. They often lack mastery in crucial areas, like fundraising or marketing, and that is why organizations like UpStart and others dedicated to training and professionalizing these new initiatives are so vital, and why ongoing professional development is critical for all Jewish professionals.

But autonomy and mastery without purpose can be vacuous, and that is why Jewish learning is so important in this equation. Many of these individuals have had enough inspiring Jewish experiences to commit themselves to actively re-imagining and designing Jewish life for their peers. But these initial “spark” experiences do not always have the depth and breadth to keep these Jewish entrepreneurs inspired, or to provide them with the skills and content to continue to create the qualitative, inspirational, and meaningful Jewish experiences required to remain relevant and vital. They need ongoing opportunities to be challenged and to grow as Jews, so that they remember why their work matters, and convey that purpose to those whom they touch through their work.

In an evaluation of our work with Jewish innovators, one respondent shared how much she valued Jewish learning:

“It’s been such a gift to study like this. To take time from my work life to do something that is restorative and inspiring. It grounds me back in my roots of my identity and grounds me back in my work. A lot of my day is spent in excel, newsletters, titles for program. It doesn’t feel like I’m repairing the world or connecting to a higher purpose. [Jewish learning] is the thread work that needs to get done [in order to connect the mundane] for the higher purpose.”

I believe that it is also important to emphasize Jewish learning opportunities for Jewish innovators so that they are better capable of creating meaningful, resonant Jewish experiences. The Talmud, in Horayot 14a, recounts an argument regarding which of two types is preferable – the Sinai type, or the Oker Harim (Uprooter of Mountain) type. The one is deeply knowledgeable about and committed to preserving the tradition; the other is, according to Rashi, “fierce and creative with Torah, even if he is not deeply grounded in Mishnah and Braita.” The question remains undecided.

Many of today’s most passionate Jewish innovators, who are playing a pivotal role in designing the Jewish future, are “fierce and creative” with the tradition, even if they do not have a deep grounding in this tradition. We must provide these individuals with the opportunity to gain more balance on the spectrum – to have them spend some time sitting at Sinai, as that will deeply enhance their ability to influence a system that has survived only because of its fierce and creative spirits. I believe it is as important for those on the Sinai side of the spectrum to gain some of the creativity and skills of the Uprooters, lest they fossilize, and lest the tradition lose its flexibility, relevance, and meaning.

The work of maintaining and renewing Jewish life needs constantly to be infused with purpose and grounded in knowledge, otherwise it is so easy to lose this tradition of practice, values, thought, and culture that has contributed to the quality of life for individuals and society for so long. And we should not assume that those in this field, either the veterans or the new kids on the block, are connected to purpose on a regular basis. Those of us who support Jewish innovators should be ensuring that we create ongoing opportunities for these individuals to learn and grow, both in secular entrepreneurial practices, and Jewishly, thereby assisting them in creating vibrant experiences for their constituents, so that this work can have the reach and impact it deserves.

You can catch some Jewish learning with Maya Bernstein at the Feast of Jewish Learning, Limmud Bay Area 2012 and Tribefest.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.