Simple Truths about Innovation

Redwood tree from Connected: The Film; courtesy

by David Bryfman

In the general discourse surrounding innovation in the Jewish world, two dichotomies have emerged as simple truths.

First, creativity and innovation are the domain of young people (generally conceived of as under 30 or perhaps under 36).

Second, so called legacy institutions are unable to be innovative as this is the market of young upstart organizations and renegade individuals.

I categorize these as simple because the reality is far more complex. And yet I still choose to call them truths rather than fallacy, because in some respects the opposite has yet to fully emerge as the dominant paradigm in the Jewish world.

However, rather than argue that these simple truths are inaccurate, a more nuanced approach shows that it is the false dichotomies between young and old, and legacy and startup organizations, that is indeed in need of further review.

I whole heartedly acknowledge that approaching 40 years old and working for the 100 year old Board of Jewish Education in New York, recently rebranded The Jewish Education Project, I might seem biased in making these assertions. But, at this stage of my career, I have made a deliberate choice to work where I do because I believe within frameworks like these lies the greatest potential to make some of the biggest differences in the Jewish world today. Not only do established organizations have the ability to dream creatively, but they often have a greater capacity to spread innovation and change systems, usually without having to worry all the time about how to keep the lights turned on. These personal biases aside, a look to the general world of innovation is somewhat revealing.

Fast Companies 2011 list of most innovative companies contains within it some of the most exciting new businesses in the 21st century [Facebook (2004), Google (2004), Twitter (2006)], as well as the veritable list of long standing organizations [Nissan, (1911), IBM (1911), PepsiCo (1898)], and many in between [Apple (1977), Trader Joes (1979), Microsoft (1975)].

If I look at the many people involved in starting these organizations, and those that were integral to these organizations being so successful, they span the gamut of the human life span. While young and new might be sexy, it is certainly not the reality of the innovation world. As is the case with many of the above mentioned examples, it has been the hybrid model, where older institutions can re-invent themselves and/or young people can work together with more experienced partners, that the best examples of innovation can be seen.

Such is the paradigm for The Jewish Futures Conference, a joint venture of the Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute, being held for the second successive year at JFNA’s General Assembly. The Jewish Future’s Conference began with a vision to bring a TED- style conference to the Jewish world. In doing this, we would be able to spark new ideas and creative thinking focused particularly on Jewish learning as a lens into ever evolving Jewish life. Through a format of dynamic presentations, interactive experiences, and networking with a diverse group of people, participants would leave the Jewish Futures experience inspired and motivated to think differently about the ever evolving Jewish world.

Central to the Jewish Futures Conference is the lineup of presenters. It was obvious that key-note speakers would always be not only a draw card but a way of bringing the best of the general world’s thinking to the Jewish community. In 2010, it was Ori Brafman, author of the Starfish and the Spider, and Marc Presnky, coiner of the phrase “digital immigrants and digital natives”, that moved an audience of over 400 people to think differently about the way the Jewish community could be structured and that Jewish learning could take place. In 2011, both Tiffany Shlain, producer of the highly acclaimed documentary ”Connected: The Film”, and Chris Lehmann, outstanding educator from the Philadelphia Science Leadership Academy, promise to inspire and invigorate the audience in Denver to think about the move in the Jewish world to that of prosumers who both consume and produce their Jewish experiences.

But it has not only big name speakers that we know can motivate an audience. Through the Jewish Futures Competition, emerging voices in the Jewish community have also had a platform to share their visions for Jewish life and living in the 21st century. In these 2 years, we have received over 75 applications to the Jewish Futures Competition emanating from over 15 states, 4 continents, and people ranging in age from 17 to over 70. In 2010, Patrick Aleph, Russel Neiss, Michael Sabani, and Charlie Schwartz challenged people to think differently about Jewish learning in the 21st century. And the 2011 competition winners, Andrea Rose Cheatham Kasper and Ben Wiener promise to do nothing short of excite and stimulate us all to think big and dream about some of the possibilities open to the Jewish world.

It is this blending of experienced and new voices to the Jewish world that we believe can spark the thinking needed to allow us to create a more vibrant Jewish future. The Jewish Futures Conference is just one way that we believe we embody the reality of innovation in the Jewish world today – that creativity and innovation can be the domain of every person regardless of their age and of any institution regardless of its years of standing in the community.

David Bryfman is currently Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at The Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York-SAJES).