By Marc Gary and Rabbi Julia Andelman
When JTS alum Rabbi Gil Steinlauf felt the Jewish community wasn’t doing enough to cultivate young LGBTQ members as Jewish leaders, he decided to take matters into his own hands. As the former head rabbi of Adas Israel, the largest and oldest Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC, he put his experience to work by creating Hineni Jewish LGBTQ Leadership Seminars, a groundbreaking program that is dedicated to empowering LGBTQ Jews to attain leadership positions in the Jewish community.
At The Jewish Theological Seminary, this is exactly the kind of innovative problem-solving we strive to promote and encourage on our campus and throughout our community. More than ever before, the Jewish community needs leaders who will take risks to pioneer fresh and exciting programs that address pressing issues and revitalize contemporary Jewish life.
We know it is challenging to create and sustain an environment that fosters innovative programming out in the field – at the synagogues, camps, schools, Hillels, and other organizations our alumni head – and that’s why five years ago JTS created the Seeds of Innovation Project. This grant program for JTS alumni provides funding up to $20,000 per project for innovative initiatives embodying the ideals and principles of Conservative Judaism, broadly interpreted.
Since the program began distributing funding in 2014, JTS has awarded close to $400,000 in Seeds of Innovation grants to 26 alumni-led projects. We couldn’t be prouder of both this program and our accomplished alumni who are pioneering original, out-of-the-box ideas to create new forms of Jewish engagement.
While the program requires projects submitted to reflect Conservative Jewish ideals, target audiences can be wide-ranging, and most of the winning initiatives transcend denominational boundaries. They address all ages, from early childhood to those nearing the end of life. Some projects already exist; others are in the conceptual stage. The range of issues that Seeds of Innovation projects address is truly extensive in scope and represents matters of great importance to both JTS and the Jewish community. These include conversion, food justice, fertility, palliative care, the arts, Jewish life outside of major urban centers, spirituality, creative liturgy, interfaith relations, Jewish responses to hate, and, of course, youth and adult education – both formal and informal.
Since that first year, we’ve seen our talented and skilled alumni submit applications for a range of projects, addressing a wide variety of Jewish issues and audiences. Each year, the Seeds of Innovation selection committee, which includes JTS alumni, is delighted to see the ingenuity of our graduates and their ability to tap into their community’s needs and their own motivation to innovate and better Jewish life. Indeed, the most difficult aspect of the program has been the fact that there are so many more outstanding projects than we are able to fund. Of the 149 projects whose leaders, all JTS graduates, have applied for grants, our funds available for the Seeds of Innovation Project has enabled us to fund only 17 percent. We are now exploring alternative ways of promoting some of the many other initiatives that our alumni are spearheading across the Jewish world.
Recently we announced the recipients of the 2018 awards – nine different projects, led by twelve alumni. This year’s projects – which include Rabbi Steinlauf’s Hineni – vary from a program that provides parenting resources around racism and other societal injustices, to a new initiative that will work to remove gender bias from hiring processes in Jewish organizational life, to a synagogue-based center for spiritual well-being near Philadelphia. Other recipients are working on issues ranging from addiction treatment to interfaith dialogue around Israel to prayer leadership training. Lastly, one program that creates an immersive Israel experience for Jewish teens together with teens of other faiths, was made possible thanks to a generous partnership grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Over the past five years, we have been gratified by the interest the Seeds of Innovation Program has received. Not only a wonderful tool for nurturing innovation, this program is also a fantastic way for JTS as an institution to create stronger connections with its graduates and continue to support them throughout their careers. The tremendous variety of these projects and the diversity of the alumni themselves reflect the broad, deep, and lasting impact that JTS graduates have on the Jewish community, in the present and in the future.
To learn more about Seeds of Innovation, please visit www.jtsa.edu/seeds-of-innovation.
Marc Gary is the executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Rabbi Julia Andelman (RS ‘06) is The Jewish Theological Seminary’s director of community engagement.