Reimagining our Communal Structures

by Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff

The demise of JDub has sparked an important conversation about very real threats to a sustainable culture of creativity and innovation in the Jewish world. We have heard concerns about broken business models for Jewish not-for profits, the narrow market for Jewish creativity and media, and a call for much broader and deeper support from the philanthropic sector.

However, what’s missing from the conversation is a story we are telling at the 14th Street Y – hopefully as a model for others seeking a long-term solution for engaging Jewish innovation.

The story begins more than a century ago, as billions of dollars of capital came to be invested in the Jewish communal infrastructure. The results of this investment are the core businesses of Jewish life as we have known it until today – JCCs and schools, synagogues and hospitals, museums and libraries, universities and university-based programs, senior centers, camps, and much more.

While the community at large struggles with solutions for how to maintain a relevant mission and a funding base for the operating and capital expenses required by this traditional programmatic real estate, the Jewish innovation sector struggles to find physical space for its work, the resources to pay its bills, and, perhaps most importantly, a match between its ambitious and diverse missions and the needs and interests of the wider community.

In 2008, as the 14th Street Y began structuring a vision for future, we established LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture as internal project, introducing scores of artists and culture makers to the Y as a hub for innovation and connection in the realms that matter to them. Then we began housing the core team of Storahtelling, a vibrant relationship that has continued for several years. We now host a BBYO regional office as well.

We reimaged the equities of our basic operations, including the physical plant and our programs base, mixing established innovators from the creative class with our own ideas and skills. In three years, our operating budget as a whole had grown by more than 30% (or $2mil).

Innovation is good for the bottom line of core institutions like ours. It’s good for innovators who need the space, budget relief, audiences and colleagues, and Jewish intellectual stimulation not offered elsewhere, too.

Furthermore, our JCC clientele wants its core services to be impacted by innovation, culture makers, and the arts. In fact, we often embed artists in core programs (as teachers, designers, master artists, senior technical advisers and other creative service providers) and pay them at market rates or better for their efforts. This is a deeply satisfying system in which all of its participants are stakeholders meeting their own needs.

Despite its challenges, Jewish communal life remains an ecosystem of tremendous size and equity. I agree with my colleagues that the innovation ecosystem must strive for better business models and that the funding streams within this system should flow more generously. Yet, of all the efforts that might be undertaken to support a loosely affiliated network of innovative, culture changing organizations without whom Jewish communal culture lacks relevance, color, and depth, perhaps the most critical is converting the vast terrain of the Jewish infrastructure into a garden where they can grow. New Jewish Culture should be the force transforming the essence of the infrastructure we have already built.

Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y in New York City.

Here are additional responses to JDub Closing Up Shop.