Jewish Communities of Meaning: Ideas Matter

By Rabbi Sid Schwarz

I recently was invited to make a presentation to deans from eight different rabbinical seminaries. The topic was how to better equip their students with some tools so that they can be more successful at driving innovation in the institutions that they will serve in the future. I observed that when I founded a synagogue (Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD), and a national educational foundation (PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values) in the late 1980’s, there was neither grant money available for Jewish social entrepreneurs nor customized training programs for the handful of us who were trying to build new organizations. Today, there are several pots of money available to Jewish social entrepreneurs and numerous options for training. These are developments to be celebrated.

When we launched Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network in 2015, it was with the express purpose to do more than just replicate other communal efforts to provide training in the hard skills of fundraising, board development, branding/marketing, taking projects to scale, management, etc. As necessary as those skills are, we believe that we, in North America, are witnessing a sea change in the way next generation Jews will access the core values and content of the Jewish tradition. We are not trying to build a better phone, a faster computer, or a more fuel-efficient car. We are exploring new ways to pass down a sacred heritage in a cultural context in which conventional religious institutions are distinctly out of favor, especially among millennials.

We distinguish the way we are building out the national Kenissa Network from most programs designed to support Jewish-content social entrepreneurs in three ways. First, we take as a premise that many Jews today resonate to core values of Judaism if delivered in a culturally relevant manner. Not only do we reject the Jewish-lite approach; we believe that the more authentic the Jewish content is, the more compelling it is to next generation Jews.

Second, we have identified five core themes that we think animate most of the organizations in the Jewish innovation ecosystem. We often call these themes “portals” because they are the passage-ways that Jews will take to encounter Judaism on their own terms. It is this understanding that yielded our initiative’s name, Kenissa, the Hebrew word for “entrance-way.” The themes/portals are:

  • Chochma – engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage;
  • Kedusha – helping people live lives of sacred purpose;
  • Tzedek – inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world;
  • Yetzira – the human ability to imagine/invent/create ideas, science, art and culture;
  • Kehillah – creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission.

Having identified these themes, we set out to identify discrete sectors in the Jewish community that are using one or more of these themes to create new models of Jewish identity. They include groups focused on Jewish learning, social justice, spiritual practice, eco-sustainability, the arts and new models of spiritual community.

When we invite the “creatives” who are building organizations focused on one or more of these themes to join the Kenissa Network, they often find the initial gathering disorienting. We are bringing together people with very different approaches to Jewish life, Jewish practice and Jewish identity. In fact, most of the leaders we invite tend to know fewer than 10% of the rest of the people in the room. And yet, at the end of our three-day Consultation, they share a powerful commonality of purpose. They recognize that, despite their differences, all take their Judaism very seriously and all understand that their ability to succeed may benefit from the support, wisdom and insights of the other people in the Kenissa Network.

Third, the Kenissa initiative places unique emphasis on covenantal community and what it takes to create such cultures. I wrote about the idea of covenantal community previously in these pages and won’t repeat it here. Because we believe that “the medium is the message,” we design the National Consultations that Kenissa convenes to model covenantal community. Part of the strength of the national network we are creating owes to the fact that, in three days, we can take a “company of strangers” and forge a relational community of leaders who are eager to stay connected to one another and to the mission of Kenissa. Among the array of communities of practice that Kenissa sponsors year-round, one on “covenanting” and one on “communal culture” are extremely popular. Most of the leaders that we invite have not even thought about these issues before they come to our gathering.

Most of the institutions that characterized the Jewish community of the past 50 years are transactional in nature. Nobody saw anything wrong with such institutions as they reflected the cultural patterns of American society of the times. But 21st American culture has moved decidedly away from top-down organizational structures towards networks and do-it-yourself (DIY) cultures. Institutions stuck in the 20th century paradigm are destined to lose market share and fade into irrelevance. Yet just because an organization was created in the last ten years does not prevent founders from defaulting into dysfunctional organizational cultures. They are just mimicking the organizational patterns that are most prevalent in our community. Among the most important value propositions that Kenissa brings to this field is our use of the concept of covenantal community to explore how to create healthy and generative organizational cultures.

We can summarize the three features of the Kenissa Network outlined above in two words: Ideas matter. Anyone who visits our website will find a rich set of commentaries on the state of the American Jewish community and the ideas and values that inspire this generation of Jews to connect to a sacred, ancient tradition. Every Monday we post a new commentary that anyone can receive by signing up for the Kenissa blog. Members of our Kenissa Network also are invited to create graphic representations of the five themes at the core of our Kenissa framework. While we started with one Venn diagram as a way to help our leaders enter into conversation with one another, we quickly discovered that our leaders had their own ways to understand their work in the context of the Jewish tradition. We invite you to visit our gallery of new models of Jewish life and to read their creators’ commentaries on those models. We believe that you will find it a most mind-expanding experience.

We are growing the national Kenissa: Communities of Meaning network in a very intentional way. We believe it represents the new face(s) of American Jewish life. If you are a social entrepreneur who is working in one of our five themes/portals, we invite you to register your project here, which will make you eligible to be invited into the Network. We invite 50 founders/leaders into the Network each year. If you are working in the organized Jewish community and you want to explore how your institution can benefit from the Kenissa Network or partner with some of our projects, contact me at RabbiSid@Hazon.org.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Hazon and the founder and director of the
Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. He is the author of several books on the future of the American Jewish community including Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future.