Oxymoron or Opportunity? Innovation in the Orthodox Community

by Evonne Marzouk

In the Orthodox community, the words “change” and “innovation” are not very popular. They imply a departure from the tradition, a need for something different from the rich tradition that has been handed down to us from the past. And yet, the Orthodox community does change. Sometimes it changes gradually over many generations, as with the increase in women’s education through the Bais Yaakov movement over the last century. Other times, it changes abruptly, in reaction to current events. In fact, whatever one has to say about whether the Orthodox community “changes,” at minimum we can agree that the Orthodox community reacts. And that reaction can be for good or bad, depending on your point of view, and depending on what inputs were in place when the reaction occurred.

As an Orthodox woman, I don’t think I’ll be stepping too far out of the lines if I acknowledge here that there are many who are unsatisfied with the status of the Orthodox community. Some of that dissatisfaction comes from liberal Jews, and some of it from within the Orthodox community. Some frustration comes from the type of reactions the Orthodox community has had to issues which are perceived as “liberal.” Other frustration comes (for example) from disagreement on the level of adoption of mitzvot and stringencies (“chumrot”), and from the sad realities of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) within the Jewish community.

Within the liberal Jewish world, a great wave of Jewish innovation has come in the last ten years. Dozens of organizations have been created with the intention of engaging young Jews and the unaffiliated, making Judaism relevant for our technological times, and addressing modern social issues. Many of these organizations are doing important work in the Jewish community and in the world as a whole.

In the Orthodox community, a similar group of up-and-coming Jewish leaders have begun to organize “innovative” projects which address some of the same topics as those in the liberal world, in particular addressing modern social issues through the lens of Torah. These organizations are developing an approach which speaks effectively to the Torah-based culture and perspective of the Orthodox world. I count my own organization, Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, as one of the successful initiatives in this domain. If some of these organizations can be successful in their efforts, they may be able to address some of the internal and external dissatisfaction about the Orthodox community.

On the whole, these organizations have been far less successful than their liberal counterparts. I propose that the reason is not because of lack of dedication, or even because of unwillingness on the part of the Orthodox community to explore and internalize Torah values on modern issues (there are many examples in which the Orthodox community has been receptive), but because of a critical lack of funding for groups which fall between the cracks as “Orthodox innovation” organizations.

My own organization, which has existed for over seven years, created a wealth of Torah-based resources about protecting the environment, and inspired thousands of Jews and many communities across the world to take action, has only received one single grant (an Ignition Grant of $20,000 from the Covenant Foundation) dedicated to engaging the Orthodox community about this important issue. And with additional funds, there is much we could do. In fact, the focus groups conducted with our Covenant grant yielded 14 Orthodox day schools which are eager for curriculum and practical action resources, and yet we’ve not been able to get a follow up grant to give them what they seek.

Within the Jewish innovation sector, many foundations say that they want their grants to serve a multi-denominational audience, and some seem open to “Orthodox innovation” at the outset. However, the sector’s major focus on “young Jews”, on “non-denominationalism,”, and on challenging authority make grants to create “innovation” in the Orthodox community very difficult to receive.

While a focus on “young Jews” makes perfect sense for the unaffiliated, successful efforts that seek to introduce innovation in the Orthodox community cannot focus exclusively on young adults. Orthodox Jews aged 25-35 are often already raising children and too busy to be the target of “innovation initiatives,” and furthermore, their community interaction is usually with a multi-generational group (for example, in a synagogue). To single out younger Jews in this context would be inappropriate, and can even be offensive to older members who have more time and resources to participate.

Seeking to make change in the Orthodox community, I often get the sense from innovation funders that they think the only way “change” can happen is by challenging authority structures, and I often hear skepticism that existing authorities can be educated sufficiently to change. But in the Orthodox community, working within authority structures is necessary and the only way to create community-wide change. Overriding authority can often immediately invalidate one’s efforts. And this change within authority structures is possible. It just takes time.

Within the Orthodox community, I’ve seen hunger for a Torah approach to the news in the headlines, and (in relationship to my own project) to the creeping sense that the environment is being threatened to all of our detriment. I’ve been graciously welcomed as a young advocate, and I’ve had the opportunity to speak and inspire lay leaders of all ages in Orthodox synagogues across the United States. Torah-based, respectful of authority structures, awareness-building and mindset-changing, I believe this is the kind of change we’ve been seeking in the Orthodox community. If this kind of work was funded, it would empower a new generation of Orthodox leaders while also bringing awareness in the Orthodox community to issues of modern global importance.

And yet when I look around for additional funding to pursue my work within the Orthodox community, I find only closed doors.

Contrary to a popular myth, Orthodox foundations do not only support initiatives within the Orthodox community. Orthodox foundations (and private individuals) often support concrete social justice initiatives, such as food pantries or hospital visitations for all Jews and beyond. And many individual Orthodox Jews have begun to support innovation initiatives like mine. Yet most Orthodox foundations have not yet begun to support organizations that promote attitude shifts such as those promoted by the young “innovation organizations.” I feel confident that the funding will come, as a critical mass of the community begins to understand the importance of these issues. But in the great process of “changing” attitudes and behaviors, shifts in funding patterns often come last.

Thus, it seems to me that if social and environmental innovation is to happen in the Orthodox community, initial support must come from the general Jewish innovation sector. This support must extend beyond the early start-up phase, until the Orthodox community begins to internalize these values and fund the projects on its own. The support would pay off in an Orthodox community that has benefited from the great wave of Jewish innovation, within a traditional context. And if that happened, the Orthodox community might actually begin to find common ground with Jews across the denominations – and there might be less dissatisfaction all around.

Across the Jewish community, young leaders are creating innovative projects out of a deep sense of ownership for the Jewish community, and a desire to provide leadership and creativity to invent the Jewish world for the next generation. Orthodox innovation efforts spring from the same commitment to a reinvigorated Jewish life.

Just as with other innovative organizations, innovation initiatives in the Orthodox community can help us all to fulfill the best in ourselves as members of the broader Jewish community. Our efforts can make the Orthodox community a more participatory part of the Jewish world, and enrich the Jewish community as a whole. By so doing, our communal, cross-denominational Jewish life will become a more authentic expression of all our Jewish values.

I hope that is a picture of Jewish life that we can all invest in.

Evonne Marzouk is director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living inspired by Torah.