In the Spirit of Entrepreneurism: Be Wise Fellows make Judaism More Relevant

Photo courtesy Kashouvot
Photo courtesy Kashouvot

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the next generation of Jews is experiencing faith differently than its predecessors. In a contemporary world, it’s wise to be flexible and evolve. The alternative: deterioration.

It was this realization says Shirley Idelson, dean of HUC-JIR/New York, which led Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to launch its Be Wise entrepreneurial grants program in 2012, the year JIR celebrated its founding by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Free Synagogue. Wise and JIR offered a new and compelling vision for 20th century liberal Judaism, but according to a 2012 blog post on the HUC site, “We cannot sit on the laurels of our past, and we have no interest in replicating what was.”

The Be Wise grant program challenges students to design an entrepreneurial project outlining a need or problem they hope to address and how they hope to effect change, explaining their project in reference to Wise and his view for JIR. An important element of each project is partnership with other Jewish organizations. If accepted, students receive seed money to implement their ideas.

Now in its third year, Idelson says the program is the first of its kind specifically designed for future Jewish clergy – and its going strong.

“Our Be Wise fellows bring creativity, an innovative spirit, a willingness to take risks and a passion for progressive Judaism to their projects,” says Idelson. She says HUC is less focused on the short-terms results of the program, but its long-term impact on the students’ confidence and skills. HUC hopes they’ll bring the same creativity, innovation and passion to their work as Reform professionals, shaping progressive Judaism for the next generation.

It’s working, according to Samantha Shabman, who through the project created a multi-lingual prayer anthology for chaplains to enhance the spiritual and religious well-being of patients in Israeli hospitals. Working with the organization Kashouvot, Shabman is advancing chaplaincy in Israel and all over the world.

The anthology is formatted as decorative box containing large print cards of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers with artistic renderings related to each prayer.

“This project is particularly interesting in Israel because hospitals are some of the rare places in Israel where Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, native Israelis and African refugees, in addition to many other religions ethnicities and cultures are forced to talk, work, live and be together,” says Shabman. “This is a Zionist endeavor. … We decided to use all Israeli printers, artists and designers.”

Shabman says her project is created in the spirit of liberal Judaism because it is inclusive and modernizes ancient concepts to make them relevant and accessible to people who would not necessarily think to look to Judaism – or religion in general – in their time of need.

“I think the beauty of Judaism is that while rooted in ancient tradition, it is more relevant today than ever,” says Shabman.

Vladimir Lapin’s Mafte’ach project connects new and emerging composers from a number of the greater conservatories in the world with new audiences in the liturgical world, with a goal of creating new liturgical music for the synagogue in the 21st century. He says composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert and George Frideric Handel, among others, all wrote musical works based on liturgical settings, which were then used in churches and some synagogues.

Lapin has worked closely with the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music to create these partnerships, including with The Juilliard School and others.

“It gives young composers an amazing outlet to create new music,” he says. “I am hoping for music that will help people find meaning. It could be a simple folk melody for guitar or it could be a large orchestral piece with a full choir. I’m looking for music that helps people find meaning in their lives.”

Lapin is in his last year of cantorial schools, says Be Wise will help him craft a vision-driven cantorate focused on reanimating Jewish life.

Other interesting projects are Amanda Kleinman’s Reform Luach, which offers suggestions for applying Reform siddurim, machzorim and Torah commentaries to specific days in the Hebrew calendar. Nicole Armenta Auerbach’s Two Minutes of Torah partners with marketing and religious experts to train HUC-JIR students and faculty to create engaging two-minute “sermons” for distribution through social media. Sara Luria’s ImmerseNYC brings a community mikveh to the pluralistic Jewish community for alternative uses aside from family purity, including immersing after one’s last round of chemotherapy, marking weaning, celebrating bar or bat mitzvah, among other reasons.

Some students complete their projects and then take advantage of Be Wise continued education courses to keep involved. Other students have had their projects funded and are now working with them, even after graduating from HUC.

Idelson quotes Pirkei Avot: “The world stands on three things: Torah, service to God and acts of human kindness. But none of these pillars remain fixed in time.”

Idelson says that throughout Jewish history, innovation, reflecting the spirit of each new Jewish generation, has made that generation stronger.

“Our Be Wise fellows and their projects [are bringing] changes that aren’t counter to Jewish tradition but completely in sync with the revolutionary spirit of our ancestors,” Idelson says.