Bright, Shiny and New:
The Risks of Neophilia

Neophilia: love of or enthusiasm for what is new or novel
By Rabbi Andy Kastner

The Jewish people have a complex relationship with that which is new. At times we shield ourselves from its influence, while at others, we embrace its potential. Our orientation to innovation shapes our approach to community development and philanthropy.

A Brief History of Modern Innovation

One of 19th century European Jewry’s leading rabbis, the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Sofer/Schreiber, 1762-1839), (in)famously proclaimed, “that which is new, is biblically forbidden,” making a pun on a Mishnaic dictum (Masekhet Orlah, 3:9). He used this fierce language to rail against the Haskalah and Reform movements. As the Chatam Sofer thought, the innovation that the Haskalah and Reform movements envisioned, was an existential threat to the fidelity of tradition, and the future of the Jewish people.

A century later, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, encountered a new challenge of innovation. The second wave of Aliyah was in motion, seeking to settle in a Jewish homeland. Characterized by secular, and socialist strivings, this generation had long since integrated the values of the Haskalah and the new modernity.

On the surface there was clear and present dissonance. The pioneers’ ideology would seem out of sync with the religious and mystic vision of Rav Kook. Yet, in an expression of prescience and courage, Rav Kook saw the social innovation of his time not as an evil to root out, but rather the very tool to reframe and remix Jewish wisdom in the context of a changing world. As such, Rav Kook coined his own slogan to epitomize his approach: “Hachadash yitkadesh, vehakadosh yitchadesh; the new will become sacred, and the sacred will be renewed.” For Rav Kook, innovation was not a departure from the sanctity of tradition. Rather, it was part of it – a piece of insight that only needed the right conditions to shine through and be understood and put to work.

And today, yet another century later, the spirit of innovation runs deep in us. The language of innovation is firmly rooted in the way we communicate our strategies, and tout our successes. Through innovation grants, we see a flourishing of new organizations and new pathways of engaging Jewish wisdom and practice to bring community together. We have gone so far as to use the phrase “The Jewish Innovation Ecosystem”!

Today, we chase after the new with appetite, as if we will find that one unicorn that saves the Jewish people. A worthy cause, but at what cost? I worry that we may suffer from neophilia.

The Risks of Neophilia

The author and marketing guru, Seth Godin encourages us to hit the brakes with our fascination with the new. In his piece “Neophilia as a Form of Hiding,” Godin notes:

“In contemporary art or movies, it makes perfect sense to be focused on the bleeding edge, on the new idea that’s never been previously contemplated.

But when we’re discussing our goals, our passion and the way we interact with the culture, it seems to me that what works is significantly more important than what’s new.”

In his caution, Godin draws out an important insight. While the pursuit of the new is abundantly intoxicating, the propagation of the new for its own sake, can serve to conceal or blur, the true purpose that we seek to achieve.

Now don’t get me wrong – I am no Chatam Sofer – you won’t hear me denounce the importance of innovation. Rather, I want to encourage us to see innovation as part of a strategy of community development and philanthropy, and not an oversized tool in the box. We must seek the new as it pushes us to see what is on the horizon. But, if we support the new on its own, we miss the mark of what we are trying to accomplish.

The Bay Area has become, as we know, a certain epicenter of innovation and disruption. The spirit of creativity is “in the water” and shapes local industry and culture. Yet, the pace and focus with which we approach Jewish innovation appears to be reaching a tipping point. In meeting with many of the Jewish makers, both locally and beyond, I sometimes hear a deeply fatigued exhale these days when speaking about their work (and funding) and the pressures of the Jewish innovation climate. Often (or too often) encouraged to develop a new program to receive funding, many express a sense of frustration and feeling of being relationally out of sync with some funding partners.

On this, Godin again, provides a helpful frame in his piece “Neophilia and Ennui“: “These are two sides of the same coin.

Neophilia pushes us forward with wonder, eager for the next frontier.

And Ennui is the exhaustion we feel when we fall too in love with what might (should?) be next and ignore the wonder that’s already here and available right now.”

As grantmakers and funders, we must take heed of this edge. Innovation teeters as a two-legged stool if not balanced by an approach for sustainability. With this awareness, I offer the suggestion to those helping to fund Jewish innovation:

  • Provide general operating support
  • Support R&D grants
  • Engage in long(er) term funding cycles – can we break the barrier of a 3 or 5 year grant?

Helping nonprofits do the work they dobetter

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Fred Isaac in support of the Frederick J. Isaac Fund. Fred is an extraordinary human – it’s evident from the moment you encounter him. He is humble and well-studied, and is fond of saying that he “is happy to be unusual, and doesn’t want to be unique.”

The Fund, now almost 10 years in, is grounded by the tagline, “Helping nonprofits to do the work they do … better.” Fred began his work with the Fund roughly around the time that the most recent period of Jewish creativity and innovation was blossoming in the Bay Area, providing strategic funding to many (including legacy organizations, Israeli nonprofits and organizations outside of the Jewish world). He has ridden in the barrel of this wave since, however, positioning himself as a funder in a unique place, in nurturing this chapter of nonprofit organizational growth.

The Fund is clear in its focus. When Fred invites a grantee to meet, he sets the tone. From the outset, Fred affirms, that by dint of an invitation, the organization is guaranteed funding, with a clear and quick timeline, and no “black box.” But it’s the next piece that really opens things up, and sets Fred’s approach apart from others. Riffing off of the Fund’s tagline, Fred will frame, “I know that what you are doing is good. I want to you explore the aspects of your work and organization that we can help you do better.”

This is a sweet moment when meeting with grantees. You can almost feel a sense of relief and release that they will not be asked to create something new. Certain barriers between funder and grantee are shed, and the invitation solicits a chavruta, a thought partnership, that seeks to surface a weak link or inefficiency that can be trued.

On this, Fred shared, “There is a contradiction built in between the new and the sustainable – if we keep going after the new, we outrun ourselves. Growth comes not by the creation of the new but emerges from the refinement of what is.”

Fred seeks to tie things together, to help strip away any clutter in the pursuit of optimization. It’s no surprise that Fred points to Fredrick Winslow Taylor, one of the intellectual leaders of the Efficiency Movement as an inspiration. This approach to systems thinking, stretches the notion of innovation to the holistic. Asking nonprofits to focus on what they need to do their work better, as opposed to what they need to expand, has led Fred to fund projects ranging from replacement boilers, board development consultation, to technology upgrades. As Fred asserts, “this is an expression that the “back of the house is as important as the public face of the organization.”

The culture of innovation looks differently in every community. We still need to fund the new – there is a still a place for ignition grants for early stage initiatives. However, we must endeavor to approach our funding more holistically to ensure the stability of the organizations we seek to support, “to do our work better.”

In so doing, we will engage with the new in a way that shelters us from the risks of neophilia.

Rabbi Andy Kastner is the Interim Executive Director at the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.