Bridging the Divide

by Maya Bernstein, David Bryfman, Aliza Kline, Bill Robinson and Toby Rubin

What would it look like if Legacy and Emerging Organizations were aligning with each other to support more inspiring, meaningful and relevant Jewish learning for today’s children, teens and families?

Over the last 20 years there has been an explosion of innovation in Jewish education. A host of entrepreneurial start-ups have emerged offering new perspectives and resources for Jewish learning. We are energized by the new ideas we’ve seen relating to food consumption and the environment, to the arts, to social justice, to Torah study and ritual experience.

Simultaneously, we have also seen a significant number of organizations that have been in existence for many decades (“legacy institutions”) continue to re-invent themselves to remain relevant to contemporary Jewish life. Some have updated their missions, others have introduced new programming or models of Jewish learning. Some have even incorporated entrepreneurial start-ups into their very institutions.

While legacy institutions and new organizations and initiatives may appear to be different, in our experience, both the entrepreneurial ventures and their legacy counterparts share the same core values: they strive to create meaningful and accessible Jewish experiences. While we have seen some promising examples of legacy organizations welcoming in startups to co-create educational resources to serve their communities, we have also seen relationships fail for many reasons including, lack of capacity, trust, and/or funding.

Emerging organizations struggle with limited capacity and difficulties of scaling up. Congregations (and other membership driven institutions) are responsible to individual members and have tended to be resistant to the radical shifts needed to share educational responsibility or perhaps even “outsource” education for their families with other organizations. Most often the challenges lie in between – mis-communication, the clash of different cultures, and the amount of time and effort it takes on both sides to build effective relationships.

We admit to being biased. We believe that the way to an exciting future, in which the best education our communities have to offer is available to all children, teens and families, will come from deep relationships between congregations, community centers, federations, emerging organizations and even individual teachers, artists and musicians.

How do we get there? What does that vision entail? What do the leaders of both historic and emerging organizations see as their strengths? What are the barriers to bridging these organizations? What resources are needed to address the barriers and help our leaders move beyond them?

Our community will require new ways of thinking and new ways of organizing in order to effectively answer these questions. Certainly, congregations need to become more comfortable at being networked non-profits (and not stand alone organizations). Entrepreneurs need to develop more sustainable and scalable business models that allow them the freedom and capacity to bring their innovative resources to more and more families. In our increasingly networked world, everyone needs to think more about shared ownership and be less concerned about control.

We are starting with our own internal and external inquiry. The Jewish Education Project, based in NY with over 100 years of history, is partnering with UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based, 6 year old national organization working to accelerate integration of innovative ideas into Jewish life. Working together enriches us, allows us each to deepen our strengths and gain complementary capacity.

Together, we will engage our constituencies – congregations, community centers, schools, camps and a diverse range of Jewish start-ups, to explore these issues and develop different prototypes to share with the larger community. It’s likely that we will encounter some of our own challenges to deep collaboration along the way. We intend to share those findings too.

Today, the GA opens and will once again host a session in the style of the Jewish Futures Conference – join in our session, sponsored with JESNA, and launch this inquiry with us.