New Ideas from the Old World

Lisa Capelouto, Director of JHub – a London-based incubator that focuses on Jewish social action and innovation – presents a European perspective to the conversation about innovation, and looks at how the old world is learning from the new (and sometimes the other way around).

For Jews in North America, Europe is often seen as repository of memory rather than a source of exciting innovative ideas. On the other hand we Europeans tend to look longingly at the landscape of innovative startups “across the pond” and wonder why our communities lack that creativity and energy, and how we can encourage that level of innovation in Europe.

Does the reality on the ground reflect this conventional wisdom? The 30 young people from 16 countries due to attend this week’s ROI/Paideia gathering of Jewish Innovators in Europe would beg to differ. Those attending are all graduates of ROI or Paideia, which between them have graduated over 100 new European Jewish initiatives from their Tel Aviv and Stockholm summer incubator programmes. The gathering is hosted by the Jewish community of Vilnius, Lithuania, which numbers about 5,000 people and itself has undergone a remarkable revival since the fall of communism in 1989, after being virtually decimated during the Holocaust.

Also this month, The Pears Foundation, Jumpstart, and the ROI Community for Young Innovators are partnering to conduct the first ever census of innovative and entrepreneurial Jewish ventures in Europe. This study will take place at the same time as The Natan Fund, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and Jumpstart conduct parallel research in the United States and Canada, based on their previous report, The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape. We hope this research will produce a dynamic snapshot of all the exciting developments in this field.

In early December 2009, Professor Steven M. Cohen spoke at a London seminar about innovation in North America. He highlighted five areas in which innovative initiatives had been set up in the past 10 years: emerging spirituality; social justice; Jewish culture; new media; and Jewish learning. Innovative programmes in all of these areas are taking place all over Europe and some are going global.

Here is a taster of some of these amazing initiatives, all of which add up to a simple new idea that has been conventional wisdom for all but about 50 of the past 2,000 years: Europe is a source of Jewish creativity.

Independent spiritual communities

In cities around Europe, independent spiritual communities are mushrooming. Examples include Wandering Jews; a London based non-denominational minyan that meets twice a month in people’s homes around London and never goes to the same house twice. They describe themselves as “little bit Fight Club, a little bit minyan, almost 100% good”. In Poland, communities such as Beit Warszawa and Beit Kraków are providing a gateway to Jewish life for many young Jews who are rediscovering their faith.

Social justice

JHub: the Jewish Social Action Hub was set up two years ago by the Pears Foundation to provide a space for Jewish London-based social action organisations to grow and develop. Acting as incubator and accelerator, it currently has six resident organisations and also provides a space for Jewish social activists to meet and learn together JHub has also facilitated the launch of community-wide social action programmes around a variety of issues such as Fairtrade and the Environment.

Jewish culture

Jewish Salons meet regularly in Amsterdam, Prague, and Vienna (and Mexico City and Tel Aviv, too), where they are “co-producing interactive events showcasing contemporary Jewish culture.” Many cities have their own festivals of Jewish culture, music and theatre. Young Jewish musicians are using the traditional languages of their grandparents or great grandparents to create new art forms. They include London based GhettoPlotz, “a live klezmer-house dancefloor mashup project”, Berlin-based Jewdyssee, whose mission is “explore the music and history that developed for a thousand years around the Yiddish language and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe,” and Los Desterrados who weave soul, jazz, flamenco and folk influences into the Mediterranean music of the Sephardic Jews.

New Media

Leadel, launched in September 2008 by the European Jewish Congress and funded by the European Jewish Fund, is a European project with global participation by leading Jewish activists and thinkers from around the world. Dubbed the “Jewish TED,” it uses video clips and webisodes on an interactive website to create a “media hub showcasing the rich variety of contemporary Jewish voices and expressions and using digital media to both reflect upon and inspire innovation and creativity.” Another exciting development is The Big Green Jewish Website, simultaneously the online base for the UK Jewish climate change campaign and a global educational and action resource for Jewish environmentalists.


Perhaps the best-known example of European Jewish creativity, Limmud was founded in the UK in 1980 and has grown from a conference of several dozen people into a worldwide movement. Its values of volunteering, openness, innovation and inclusivity have inspired over 40 communities around the world to run their own Limmud creating cross-communal and cross-generational experiences, accessible to all. It still continues to innovate with new programmes such as Limmudfest and the international chavruta project.

European Jewry is on an exciting journey, but there are challenges on the way. While a growing number of funders have taken the lead in investing in new Jewish initiatives, others continue to see Europe more as a memorial to a traumatic past than as the source of a vibrant future. Compass Europe, published last year by the Westbury Group, an association of 20 Jewish foundations working in Europe, is a Slingshot-style guide to 36 of the “most vital, innovative, effective and sustainable Jewish organisations and programmes.” Despite being well received many of the 36 organisations honored in Compass still struggle to attract new funding.

Jews in Europe are working to change their communities and the Jewish and wider world. Beyond the few projects mentioned here, there are many others, working across the spectrum of Jewish life. We hope this year’s Pears-Jumpstart-ROI survey will draw more attention to the wide range of these diverse and vibrant initiatives, but there is much more we can do. I invite my fellow Europeans to join and build this conversation, deepen our collaboration, and together shape the European Jewish community of the 21st century.

If you would like to ensure that your European or North American organisation or initiative is included in the Jumpstart survey of Jewish startups please register to receive an invitation.

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Be sure to check out yesterday’s idea from Jewcy, “Chai Mitzvah,” and tomorrow’s on The Sisterhood Blog @ The Forward. You can also visit for the full list of ideas as they progress.