Non-Innovative Innovation – Or: Maybe it Really is Your Grandmother’s Judaism

ARSP volunteer with a Project Ezra elder.
ARSP volunteer with a Project Ezra elder.

By Ron Wegsman

Working as I do in the nonprofit world, I sometimes fantasize about having my own foundation. I’ve decided two things about my foundation: (1) I would name it after my grandfather and (2) its grant guidelines, under “What we do not fund,” would say, “We do not fund innovative projects.”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for innovation. In a rapidly changing world, we need new ideas and approaches. But not everything has to be new. After all, if we’re talking about engaging people in a two-millennia-old tradition, something in the tradition must be worth keeping – otherwise, why engage people in it?

Last week I was at the German Consulate in New York City for an event marking the 30th anniversary of the relationship between Project Ezra, a grassroots nonprofit serving frail Jewish elderly on New York’s Lower East Side, and the German volunteer organization Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP). ARSP was created by German Christians after World War II to make moral restitution for the Holocaust by sending young volunteers to work with populations in need around the world, including Israel and the US.

Project Ezra was the first American Jewish organization ARSP partnered with. Today, more than half of ARSP’s programs in the US are working with the Jewish community, according to Mark McGuigan, ARSP’s US Program Director.

For me, having a young German work with an elderly Jewish person is not a big deal. But in the 1980s, you might have called that innovative, maybe even disruptive. When the partnership was first proposed, it was controversial. Many of Project Ezra’s clients were Holocaust survivors. How would they react to a young person from Germany?

Rina Pianko, who was then on Project Ezra’s staff and is now the immediate past Chair of its Board of Directors, was against the idea. “What made me change my mind was the first volunteer,” she told the group gathered together at last week’s event, which included Consul General Brita Wagener and other Consulate staff, ARSP staff and volunteers, and Project Ezra clients, staff and Board members.

Some of Project Ezra’s clients initially refused to allow the German volunteer into their homes. But when they got to know the volunteer, they relented. What won them over was direct personal contact with a flesh-and-blood person. And the volunteers got to know Jews not as an abstract group with whom their country had a fraught history, but as real people.

Direct personal contact is something Project Ezra has been facilitating for more than 40 years. There’s nothing innovative about that. The most sophisticated technology involved is a van with a wheelchair lift. Social media is not used.

But then again – one of the findings of the most recent report from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Touchpoints and Trajectories of Jewish Engagement (October 2015) was that the closer a relationship children had with Jewish grandparents, the more likely they were to engage Jewishly in college and beyond. From the anecdotes in the report, it is clear that close relationships involved direct personal contact – home visits, celebrating Jewish holidays together; a hug, a smile, a touch. There’s no app for that.

The ARSP representative who first approached Misha Avramoff, Project Ezra’s longtime Co-Director, to propose the partnership 30 years ago said she wanted her volunteers to “get the experience of holding a Jewish elder’s hand,” he recalled at the event. Maybe that’s the newest innovation that can work for Jewish engagement, continuity, survival or whatever the latest buzzword will soon be – plain, old-fashioned, direct human contact. Maybe not entirely your grandparents’ Judaism, but a Judaism your grandparents would certainly recognize – a Judaism that is innovative, but also isn’t.

Ron Wegsman is Treasurer and a former Co-Director of Project Ezra.