A few weeks ago one of my friends suggested a new game – innovation bingo. The rules are simple, sit in a room full of under-40 Jewish volunteers and professionals and wait until the word ‘innovation’ (or some variant) is used. Then yell bingo, and you win. The real fun, my friend joked, is not whether someone wins, but how quickly it takes for someone to win. Unfortunately, nothing about Jewish innovation is as simple as the rules to my friend’s proposed game. Inspiring and nurturing Jewish innovation is still easier said than done, and the manner in which the rapid increase of Jewish start-ups are supported and integrated into the broader fabric of contemporary Jewish life presents not only opportunities but challenges as well. Whereas the last Jewish century has been, in part, built on a foundation laid by large community organizations that are too large to fail, the next Jewish century may very well be shaped by Jewish initiatives that may seem limited in size, but are definitely not too small to matter.
Some interesting thinking that has influenced my own opinion on the role of small, entrepreneurial organizations in the Jewish world is the concept of a hybrid organization. This type of organization, most succinctly defined by Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, is “a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration.” One of the reasons why I like the definition Mark proposes so much is that it encompasses fundamental aspects or organizational structure (mission), strategic orientation (market strategy) and tactical strength (scale and collaboration). I also think that truly strong hybrid organizations are do not mash-up so many ideas and tactics that they lose their cohesiveness, but are entities (or initiatives) that also leverage core values and incorporate the best practices of learning/changing organizations. Given the challenges of reframing large organizations entrenched in history and (oftentimes) complexity, the development of small hybrid organizations are frequently the easiest way for engaged social activists to organize an efficient response to a social need they have identified.
While theory is interesting, the facts are even more compelling. A cursory survey of the Jewish communal landscape results in an interesting an energizing set of Jewish start-ups that address a wide range of social needs. Ranging from organizations that address shifting approaches to Jewish prayer and learning (Mechon Hadar), to organizations that address issues related to environmental education in the orthodox community (Canfei Nesharim) to initiatives that leverage Jewish values to change the broader world (Repair the World, American Jewish World Service), there are hybrid organizations being created to address every flavor of Jewish social mission imaginable. But it is not just in North America – in Europe and Israel you can find a similar explosion of Jewish start-ups, from organizations helping share a Jewish vision of a positive and inclusive Europe (CEJI) to the expansion of Jewish knowledge and social action in Hungary (Marom Budapest), to organizations developing new pathways of Jewish microphilanthropy (JGooders) new relationships between Israel/Diaspora young adults (Parallel Lives). One gets the feeling that the world of small Jewish start-ups is just beginning to unfold and that, while these organizations may be limited in current scale, their ability to expand the frontiers of our global Jewish community may be unlimited.
But there are limits.
These organizations, just like larger more established organizations, often suffer from shortcomings that can and do impede their broader development and success. First, the proponents of Jewish start-ups tend to overly fetishize Jewish innovation and assume that all small start-ups are going to be the paradigm shifting hybrid organizations they promise to be. While mixes of mission, strategy and scalability may provide solutions that are engaging and invigorating, they will not be an all-answering (or even an adequate) substitute for larger, historic and impactful organizations. Second, their leadership is often in need of greater training, maturity and reflection – characteristics that entrepreneurs sometimes lack (or resist), but which our broader community desperately needs. Third, we need to make sure that we do not overly invest in a cult of personality, but rather in a cult of excellence. New is not always better and fresh is not always transformative. While we should not discourage Jewish innovation, we also should recognize that blindly encouraging the development of hybrid organizations to the exclusion of renewing our established organizations might result in community infrastructure that is diverse in spirit but insufficient in capability to address social needs in an efficient and impactful manner.
Nevertheless, the real question then is not whether there should be a role in the Jewish community for these emerging hybrid organizations, but how to make sure that we support their development in a way that doesn’t assume their small size is a reflection of their small potential. Just as much, however, we need to make sure that our value of their high-level of “buzz” is not a substitute for our expectation of their high-level of performance. In any case, a better understanding, encouragement (and mentoring) of these small, developing (and sometimes disruptive) hybrid organizations will no doubt help the Jewish world mature in a way that, like my friend’s game, would be a no-lose proposition.
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.