Boldly Going Where No Jew Has Gone Before

by David Jacobson

“The world is defined by change and choice. We have to inspire people to see being Jewish as relevant.”

This was the challenge thrown out by philanthropist, Lynn Schusterman, at the opening of the Schusterman Family Foundation’s South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering, held in Johannesburg on February 11-12.

Innovation is defined as “the act of starting something for the first time; introducing something new.” As remarkable as our South African Jewish community is, I am not sure that the innovation we bring to our lives as individuals has translated into the more closeted confines of our community.

It strikes me that we humans do not naturally take that well to change. We prefer to stick with what we know rather than take a risk. “Better the devil you know,” as the saying goes. And perhaps the word used in that common cliche? is not coincidental for, as Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein told us on Sunday, as Jews we are commanded to imitate G-d’s creativity. Stagnation is therefore a somewhat ungodly state of being. The way I have read Jewish history is that as a people, we have indeed always embraced innovation. Abraham rejected the old ways. Moshe Rabeinu confronted a great power and created a new law, and Herzl reversed the impetus of preceding centuries of Jewish history with one idea.

Yet it seems sometimes that our community has stubbornly resisted change, perhaps owing to our deeply oppressive past. We operate in a space of fear and suspicion, in which fear is the opposite force to the creative energy of innovation. Fear paralyses possibility.

So what exactly did we do in Johannesburg, besides eat a great deal, of course? (I often wonder if there can actually be Jewish thinking without Jewish drinking or Jewish meeting without Jewish eating, but that is a discussion for another time!)

For a very intense 24 hours, some 50 young Jewish South Africans engaged with ideas and concepts, with power and possibility, but perhaps most importantly, we engaged with each other. It is not every day in Jewish South Africa that you get to mingle with Jews from all walks of life: religious, secular, right wing, left wing, Zionist and non-Zionist. The default in South Africa is to mix in circles that mirror our own lives and affirm our particular and parochial world view. So we live in Glenhazel if we are frum or we live in Norwood if we are more secular.

But in order to truly innovate, to “think outside of the box,” we have to actually get out of the box, get out of the ghetto physically and metaphysically. It is a matter of simple chemistry. When you mix different elements together, that makes for explosive ideas. The opposite is as sterile as water in a test tube. You need the magnesium to create havoc with the status quo. And our challenge must be to create constructive havoc with the current structures of the Jewish community that are hindering inspiration and innovation.

The way to re-invigorate our community is via connection. The gathering talked a great deal about connection and connectivity. For some people that connection refers to networking – the opportunity to create business connections and there was a lot of “schmoosing and cruising” over the weekend. Indeed, there were many entrepreneurs present, some social and others corporate, and they have all carved out a very unique space in South Africa and such innovation is necessary for the good of our country and our community.

However, if we truly want to change the Jewish community and change it “Jewishly,” it is essential that we connect with each other. Truly connect. Connect as Jews with a shared history and, much more importantly, a shared destiny. I saw sparks of such connectedness at the gathering and it inspired me. When you truly connect, when you rub up against a fellow Jew who has a different outlook, you create sparks. You create ideas and you create hope.

In Cape Town, we are pioneering another and similar Jewish experiment – the Mini Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. Coming out of the ethos of the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, the aim has been to create safe spaces for dialogue and to allow young Jews to step into those spaces in order to connect with their Jewishness, through first connecting with each other. That is the key. Judaism is not a religion about ideas only. Yes, the ideas are great, but the greatest idea is that we can see in each other a shared future and embrace a shared responsibility.

Perhaps, therefore, the greatest innovation of the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering was in actually gathering young South African Jews together. I have a sneaky suspicion Lynn Schusterman knew that.

After all, 10 Jews make a minyan; 50 Jews from different spaces and different places make a “Metzuyan” – a space of excellence.

David Jacobson is the Executive Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town. He is also integrally involved with International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, where he acts as an advisor and has been responsible for running three highly successful local fellowships, advancing the aims of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York.