And Now for Something Completely Different: Inside the Box

by Robert Hyfler

In order to think outside of the box you must first have a box to start from. The history of both scientific innovation and social innovation is the history of women and men who built on the progress of the past and took bold steps, at times incremental, at times radical, but always strategically developmental. Existing ideas and processes were challenged, re-cooked, reconfigured. Almost nothing, perhaps nothing occurs de novo. Over the centuries Jewish thought and action was always based on standing on the shoulders of others and integrating the old with the insights of a new and changing world. It is an historical truism – proven time and again.

As an example, fast forward to our times and examine that model of models, the most successful entrepreneurial endeavor of the Jewish social sector of the last decade – Birthright israel.

Birthright israel from its inception was championed by a visionary few but programmatically built on the work of many, mostly Jewish Federations and establishment organizations. With essential, but relatively modest seed funding from the Bronfman Foundation and others, early 90’s pilot projects in West Palm Beach, Washington D.C. and NY upgraded and raised the visibility of teen (H.S. age) Israel experience programs. Many of the innovations of those endeavors carried over into Birthright israel – pre and post programming, mega events, a market place of vendors and trip options. These initiatives themselves stood on the shoulder of older creatively funded “Passport to Israel” programs developed in Cleveland and elsewhere. The major breakthrough innovations of Birthright israel were national branding, the shorter trip, the free price tag and the focus on an older age cohort of 18-26 year olds. Similar case histories and synergies can be uncovered in such areas as synagogue renewal, venture philanthropy, Jewish camping, teen tzedakah programs and certainly day schools.

So let us return to the black box of our existing communities and realities and suggest five arenas having long and noble traditions but each ripe for learning, change and innovation.

1. Boomer Philanthropy

Philanthropy is not particularly the pursuit of the young. Chronological age and philanthropic age are often two distinct things and the concentration of disposable wealth is not always in the hands of the young (or the male). The recent great recession has taken its psychic as well as economic toll on the boomer generation. Those who have passed through this tunnel financially whole have often reevaluated their values and sense of meaning. There is a wealth of empathy, insight, talent and purpose to be mined. And the actuaries tell us they will be around for another generation plus.

2. Jewish Social Services

In Torah, tzedakah begins with connectedness and compassion and the responsibility to uplift those who have fallen on hard, lonely and difficult times. It is also, throughout the Diaspora and in Israel, the absolute most enduring engine of Jewish charitable giving. The agenda in this arena is not mundane nor is it finished. In Israel, the growing gap between rich and poor communities and populations is an existential threat to the cohesion of the state even as the economy attains first world status. In the Diaspora, recession, geographic mobility and the weakening of large extended Jewish family networks have left all of us in situational need of what our colleagues at UJA Federation of NY call the “warm embrace” of community. Their current Connect to Care program has, in eight short months, served over 13,000(!) individuals and their families dislocated financially, emotionally and professionally by the current recession.

3. Communal Infrastructure and Collaborative Planning

The Jewish life worth living exists within Jewish communities worth living in. Those communities have by necessity infrastructures of agencies, synagogues and organizations. How power is shared, how decisions are made, how the entrepreneurial spirit of foundations is merged with the public legitimacy of Federations, how synergies are created, how structures are enlarged, merged, reconfigured and sustainably funded and staffed are core challenges and opportunities that can engage the most creative minds of multiple generations.

4. Community Relations

Our young do not live in a cultural, social or political ghetto and neither should the rest of us. They, and we, are citizens of the world however rooted as we are in our values and traditions. Great social issues beg for a Jewish voice and our engagement – civility in public life, defining the boundaries of diversity and social cohesion, medical ethics, protecting the legitimacy of the Jewish state and defining what it means to be pro-Israel in an age that lacks political consensus. For over a decade we have placed these issues on the backburner often trumped by the need to protect public sector funding. We must now follow our children into the larger world and confront these old/new issues head on.

5. Volunteer Leadership

Those who, in the vernacular of Jewish life, are called “lay people” often get a bad rap. They are accused of inertia, arrogance, class bias and standing in the way of the entrepreneurial professionals and foundations who know better the task and its implementation. However the flip side is, can be, and should be that the best of our laity are financially unremunerated professionals who put their heart, soul, time and wisdom into moving mountains (and peers), listening to the collective voices of the community and ensuring that the job not only gets done but gets done right. Renewing the partnership with paid professionals, mentoring and educating a new generation of laity and linking social entrepreneurs with the lay talent they deserve is core to our future just as it was the absolute key strategic asset of our communal past.

The above five are but the tip of a glacial sized communal iceberg of what is and can be built upon. The issues themselves are neither new nor novel. Yet our times are different and therefore much can be rediscovered and reengaged.

Robert Hyfler has three decades of Jewish communal experience, currently as a philanthropic consultant. He can be reached at

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Be sure to check out yesterday’s idea from Jewcy, “Jewish identity projects are not the answer” and tomorrow’s on The Sisterhood Blog @ The Forward. You can also visit for the full list of ideas as they progress.