Beyond Categorization: Curating a New Jewish Future

For far too long, institutions have curated Jewish life in a manner that leverages access and influence to control which individuals can express Jewish life and practice.

The Museum Of Modern Art?, MoMA || Exhibition: Picasso Sculpture || from 14.09.2015 until 07.02.2016; screenshot
The Museum Of Modern Art, MoMA || Exhibition: Picasso Sculpture || from 14.09.2015 until 07.02.2016; screenshot

By Seth Cohen

What might be the most important article to read this month about the future of the Jewish community isn’t about the Jewish community at all. Authored by Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times, it illuminates the story behind upcoming exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

The thesis of Ms. Pogrebin’s article is that MoMA, in its recent announcement of upcoming exhibitions, is embracing an ongoing and significant change in the way it curates and presents its diverse array of artistic collections. There are far too many highlights to adequately do this article justice, but below are two that struck me as especially thought-provoking:

Ms. [Ann] Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, said the museum was “reflecting a more widespread shift from thinking in categories – or thinking in so-called canonical narratives – to thinking about multiple histories. Having a sense of curiosity, rather than a desire for pronouncement.”

And another from Glenn D. Lowry, the director of MoMA: “How do we become more nimble – willing to peel open departmental practices?” he added. “Yes, we can change. There was no tablet from Moses that said this is the way we have to be structured. “It’s not ‘Painting and Sculpture,’ ‘Drawings and Prints.’ It’s the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.”

Of course, the Jewish faith does have tablets from Moses, but regardless of your personal opinion of the divinity of Mosaic law, we can all agree that those tablets didn’t say how the Jewish community had to be structured. Yes, Jewish law is replete with pronouncements and proscriptions – but Jewish life, culture and community are defined by more than these guidelines. They are defined by values and ideas, purpose and actions. They are defined by multiple rich histories – Sephardic and Ashkenazi alike – and the diverse array of Israeli and Diaspora cultures and conflicts.

For far too long, institutions have curated Jewish life in a manner that leverages access and influence to control which individuals can express Jewish life and practice. For far too long, we have allowed Jewish life to be categorized and sequestered in silos, in denominations, in terms of “who is” and “who isn’t” within the community. These hierarchical and linear frameworks of Jewish life won’t strengthen our community – more likely, they will weaken it.

Similar to the process evolving at MoMA, where an innovative new generation of curators is shaping the museum’s future, the Jewish community is also entering an exciting era of change. Forward-thinking new leadership is taking the reins of Jewish organizations, deconstructing the boundaries that have previously blocked important subsets of the community from active participation and helping marginalized groups raise their voices and drive critical change. Organizations like Keshet, which supports community inclusion of LGBTQ Jews, and Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tounge) a group that advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish community – including Jews of color – are among an increasing number of initiatives helping us draw a more accurate map of Jewish life. Like the team at MoMA, they are tearing down walls, telling important new stories and opening minds to new ways of thinking.

Positive change is also increasingly accelerated by game-changing engagement strategies being conceived and implemented across the Jewish world. I am particularly excited by those my colleague Adam Simon, who spearheads the Schusterman Foundation’s leadership initiatives, is developing in collaboration with key partners. His work focuses on strengthening emerging young leaders, fostering discussion about the ways we can collectively attract and retain fresh-eyed talent and ensuring that professionals who curate Jewish experiences share the common pursuits of excellence and inclusivity.

Without question, several leading organizations across the Jewish world have also adopted the ethos of peer-driven creation and curation, empowering individuals to create community in their own image. BBYO, Hillel International, Moishe House and others equip their talented teams to effectively respond to what they’re hearing on the ground – to create programming that embraces, not dictates, the interests of teens and young adults and the opportunities to get involved that they crave. Other organizations like TAMID, Challah for Hunger, AlmaLinks and more are also developing exciting new models of peer-to-peer engagement.

But we can’t just rely on organizations (or philanthropists) to spark this critical culture shift within the Jewish world. All of us have a role to play in helping break down outdated paradigms and old ways of presenting the vibrancy of Jewish life. All of us have the power to curate experiences for ourselves and our peers using far-reaching digital and social media platforms – tools that allow us to cultivate, inspire and engage our networks.

There are old stories to tell in new ways, there are new experiences to create that are grounded in old traditions. The opportunities are there for the taking, but the question is: like MoMA’s expert curators, will we challenge convention? Will we challenge the linear and hierarchal frames of thinking and acting that might be preventing us from becoming a better version of ourselves?

And lastly, who will serve as our new curators of Jewish life? Suggestions, observations and feedback welcome.

Seth Cohen is the Director of Network Initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.