Multiple Perspectives on a Central Question: “What’s So Jewish About Changing the World?”

by Esther Kustanowitz

What is so Jewish about changing the world? This question wasn’t just on the agenda for January 22nd’s TED-style roundtable featuring five of LA’s top Jewish minds – it was the sole agenda. Judging by the rapt faces of 130 people listening to experts deliver historical, religious, cultural, civic and philanthropic perspectives on the subject in at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, it was clear that this exploration is simmering in the communal consciousness.

“While many have interpreted the Pew Report as indicating that the Jewish people are in dire straits, the fact is that many people are eager to engage around the issues and perspectives that they are most passionate about,” said Andrew Cushnir, Executive VP and Chief Program Officer at the Jewish Federation. “Arts and culture, civic responsibility, and many other lenses on Jewish connection are thriving and inspiring new creativity, creating a much richer picture than statistics alone.”

The event was organized by PresenTenseLA, the LA Jewish Federation’s fellowship for social entrepreneurs and a flagship program of NuRoots, the Jewish Federation’s new strategic community wide initiative to engage 20s & 30s in Jewish life. In addition to PresenTenseLA, which is funded in part by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, the evening was co-sponsored by the Federation’s Community Engagement Council; Young Adults of Los Angeles (YALA) and the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California. By livetweeting using the #whatssojewish hashtag, attendees were also able to engage people outside the room in the conversation, creating an open, live dialogue on the subject.

“The Federation is involved on a regular and ongoing basis in conversations about what it means to be involved in the work of Jewish Social Justice in a modern society,” said Cushnir. “Do we need to take care of our own before the other? Where should our priorities lie? As this conversation takes place in circles in and outside our community, a core question is what does Jewish tradition have to say about it? What can we learn from Jewish text, Jewish history, Jewish philanthropy that can help us understand what our role should continue to be in shaping the world in which we live?”

The first of the featured speakers was Dr. David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and the Robert N. Burr Department Chair of the UCLA History Department, who introduced four different revolutions – and the revolutionaries that shaped them – that stood out in shaping Jewish history. The revolution of Israelite monotheism led to a culture of exclusivity, he observed, highlighting the particularity of the Jewish people, creating a distinctive sense of group identity and moral conscience. The arrival of Christianity brought a concept of universality, creating a tension between monotheistic exclusivity and Christian inclusivity. Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated for heresies at age 23, is said to have been the first Jew to leave the confines of the Jewish community without converting, creating the revolution of secularity. Finally, Prof. Myers pointed to Hannah Arendt for the concept of marginality, wherein the Jew in the modern age – as a product of the persistence of anti-Semitism – became a “conscious pariah.”

Addressing the issue of philanthropy, Julie B. Platt, who is the Jewish Federation’s General Campaign Chair and Co-Chair for NuRoots and serves on the board of several other institutions, shared her attitude toward giving in general, and Jewish giving specifically. “Our highest priority lies within the Jewish community; we must take care of our own first.” She shared examples of how her husband, theater and film producer Marc Platt, strives to tell stories that reflect the Jewish value that everyone is created in the image of God, yielding projects such as Philadelphia, Legally Blonde and Wicked, all of which grapple with stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudging. “I don’t mind asking people to give. Not when we have the chance to do good together.”

Mixing up the presentation style a bit was USC professor and founder of the Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab Adlai Wertman, who chose the Ignite style – auto-advancing, image-heavy PowerPoint slides designed to keep things moving quickly – to convey his points about how we decide to give, and the factors at play. “What’s the motivation?” he asked. “We humans have something inside of us. Every religion says ‘take care of your neighbors.’ We do it because this is how we want to teach our children. We have no excuse not to engage. I don’t care why, but it’s important that we do it.”

Danielle Berrin, a journalist and the Jewish Journal blogger behind the “Hollywood Jew” blog, addressed #whatssojewish through a Hollywood and culture lens. “Why do we as Americans prize the movie-going experience so much?” she asked. “Hollywood is influential, not just here but around the world … from its beginnings, it was founded to transform real life into ideal life,” telling audiences to “leave the world as it is, and immerse yourself in the world as it could be.” She also urged Jewish audiences to understand that when they buy movie tickets, they are “voting for the kind of culture we want our nation to develop and distribute,” and spoke to the power of “stories as the precursor for change.”

Providing a rabbinic perspective, Rabbi Ed Feinstein from Valley Beth Shalom wondered if there was “enough inspiration,” and whether “Jewish values will survive in an era when people don’t care enough to learn or study.” He also called attention to consumerist culture as trying to fill a hole that should be filled by meaning. As to the matter of Jewish survival, a question which inspires much Jewish activism, Rabbi Feinstein advised moving away from that question and toward a more internal, but nonetheless important charge: to bring goodness and blessing into the world. “Is changing the world a Jewish value? Of course. The question is why. And the answer is because it creates a certain kind of human being. So the question is: what type of humans and society are we out to create?”

“And in the end, #whatssojewish about changing the world?” asked Jaclyn F. Cohen, an HUC-JIR rabbinical student who had been tweeting along with the discussion. “Everything,” she asserted.

Esther Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant who currently works part-time at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, where she has managed the NextGen Engagement Initiative since 2010.