It’s that time of year again – the days are shorter and colder, and across cultures people huddle together with family members, and brighten the dark evenings with orbs of light. Chanukah is upon us. We eat latkes and jelly donuts to remember the oil that miraculously lasted in the ancient temple. We light candles each night, increasing light and holiness in the world. We remember the miraculous victory of the few against the many, and celebrate our religious and cultural freedom. And, of course, we play dreidel – and teach our young and tender to gamble.
I have a vivid childhood memory of gathering with aunts, uncles, and cousins at my grandfather’s house for Chanukah. He had a jar full of coins, and each family member would line up in size order to take a turn dipping a hand into the jar and trying to retrieve as much gelt as possible. The kids had the advantage of easily fitting little fists through the jar’s narrow opening. The adults had the advantage of big hands, which could hold more coins. My uncle would rummage with his thick fingers in the jar for quarters and dimes, attempting to stack them. The challenge was to fill your palms with just the right number of coins, arranged just so, in order to successfully extract the money, and your fingers, from the jar. My grandfather delighted in our strategizing and excitement, but truly loved watching the coins change hands as we subsequently sat down to play dreidel.
Chanukah’s traditional game is a spinning reminder that the games we play are risky, and you never can be quite sure where you’ll land at the end. Daniel Sieradski, in his recent JTA piece “Innovators wanted, non-rich need not apply,” implies that if only more creative, cutting-edge people in the Jewish community could be guaranteed gimmels, we might have a more meaningful and relevant array of Jewish communal options available, or, at least, more Jewish social entrepreneurs. He laments that programs such as Joshua Venture and Bikkurim, which, though they offer generous stipends and learning opportunities, require participants to dedicate so much time to their new ventures that it renders them unable to earn money elsewhere. And he claims that the amounts of money these programs offer are not enough to cover the bills. He writes, “When subjecting oneself to pauperdom is the only way you’re ever going to get a shot at making a difference, our communal leadership shouldn’t be surprised when the best and brightest take their energies and excitement elsewhere”.
Sieradski seems to be missing the basic concept that defines entrepreneurship in general: it’s a risky business. Entrepreneurs always put in “sweat equity” time – and, in fact, the most successful businesses in recent entrepreneurial history, like Dell Computer, Microsoft, Apple, HP, and others, have started in dorm rooms, garages, and kitchen tables, with the founders eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and living, barely, off of savings. Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. Some succeed, and some fail. But most all get back up on their feet, and try again. In defining social entrepreneurs, Ashoka’s website claims that “social entrepreneurs often seem to be possessed by their ideas;” in other words, they cannot not pursue their vision, despite the personal and professional risks involved. Of course, this is not the business for everyone.
Sieradski’s piece should sound as a siren in our community to remind us that those talented, risk-inclined individuals using all of their entrepreneurial talents to innovate in the Jewish world should be respected and lauded for their sacrifices. And it must also underline that the institutional structures, such as Bikkurim and Joshua Venture, along with UpStart, Jumpstart, PresenTense, and others around the country and the world offering Jewish social entrepreneurs support and resources, must be adequately funded and supported, and acknowledged for the tremendous importance of their work.
This risky business of social entrepreneurship is one of the underlying messages of Chanukah. Often, we think of the “Chanukah miracle” as the oil that should have lasted for one day, but instead lasted for eight. But isn’t it possible that the “miracle” we commemorate is the fact that someone took the risk to light the Menorah in the first place? If there truly wasn’t enough oil to last, if the savings account was low, the wife didn’t work as a successful attorney, and the stipend offered wasn’t large enough – why didn’t the Maccabees have one foot out the door? Chanukah celebrates the audacity to light, the audacity to play the game, though the chances are real, and strong, that the dreidel may land on “shin,” that your hand might come up with a meager few pennies from the jar, and that your venture might not succeed. Then again, though, you may hit the jackpot, and then, in the world of Jewish social entrepreneurship, you won’t be celebrating alone.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities. Maya regularly shares her thoughts with our eJewish Philanthropy community.