The New “I” Word

The new “I” word

by Joshua Avedon

Two announcements in my inbox this week confirmed what I’ve suspected for a while: the next phase of 21st century Jewish re-invention is upon us. In those emails Hazon and Isabella Freedman proclaimed their merger, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation revealed the recipients of its Second Stage Fund grants for post-startups (Hazon among them, alongside Keshet and Mechon Hadar). Together these two developments signify a maturing marketplace in which consolidation and investment in existing value may be a more important driver of change than newness.

What the three recipients of TSBF’s grants have in common – beyond having stellar leadership – is that their leaders are more focused on creating movements and mobilizing participation than on institution-building. Perhaps that kind of mission-driven organizational humility is an indicator for success in the emerging Jewish landscape.

Mechon Hadar grew out of a single independent minyan that realized the power of self-organized learning and spiritual community. Hadar’s path to growth was traditional scaling; acceleration in program and revenues over time to broaden reach and deepen impact. Beyond creating a wellspring for serious adult learning, Hadar’s leaders are focused on empowering individuals to seize control of their own Jewish journeys and on giving them the tools to learn and build community with their peers.

Similarly, Hazon has evolved to be the undisputed thought leader and convenor of the modern Jewish environmental and sustainability movement by putting people and relationship at the center its program design. Hazon’s trajectory has been defined by crafting life-changing experiences, forming networks of purpose, and enabling like-minded social entrepreneurs to work together. By nurturing many diverse brands through partnerships, fiscal sponsorship, capacity-building, and collaborative programming, Hazon has created an integrated and holistic experience of modern Judaism. The merger with Isabella Freedman (itself the product of a merger with Elat Chayyim) is the next logical step in that progression.

Keshet, which began life as a grassroots LGBT group in Boston, aspired to go national when it realized the programs it provided could radically advance inclusiveness in Jewish communities everywhere. Keshet’s growth was furthered by a well planned merger with Jewish Mosaic, bringing together complementary toolkits and talented leaders under a single banner. Two years on, the new Keshet is reshaping communal priorities around inclusion not only across the United States but now, through affiliates, in the UK and beyond.

Three success stories, justly celebrated this week. They confirm that the real value of innovation isn’t the creation of new organizations, but when the people and perspectives behind them are woven into the communal fabric, and transform it in the process. Indeed, the global emergence over the past fifteen years of hundreds – likely more than a thousand – of new Jewish startups is powerful evidence of both creativity and interest in the Jewish world.

However the reality is that the impact of Jewish innovation on mainstream Jewish life so far is just a fraction of its potential. For every successful story of a startup that makes a great leap to a new stage, there are dozens that fail, struggle to survive, or simply linger on without finding a pathway to sustainability.

Jewish startups have successfully attracted talent, piloted concepts, and pioneered new ways of engaging both committed Jews and those who are new to, or even ambivalent about Jewish community. But that success has come at the expense of the creation of a large and fragmented marketplace with numerous redundancies and missed opportunities. This makes for a very confusing philanthropic playing field, one that lacks the coordinated power and strategic oversight to re-arrange the organizational pieces to achieve efficiencies and economies of scale.

The underlying economics haven’t changed. Even as Jewish startups have proliferated at a geometric rate over the past decade, funding for them has not kept pace. The fierce competition between them for very limited resources – including money, organizational development, and public attention – means that many effective and promising projects fail to thrive (while some less promising ones hang on anyway).

Strategic mergers and second stage funding are just sensible ways to aggregate value, which will reduce costs while deepening impact. The arrival of the next epoch in the current Jewish renaissance means more organizations are either scaling up, merging, or going out of business. The sector will be stronger because it.

However this process is likely to happen the same way the ecosystem came into being in the first place, that is: organically. As with many organic processes, it’s messy. And it’s likely that much that is good will be lost in the process if it simply unfolds without direction or intentionality. The risk is that while unguided market forces work to rationalize and reduce the number of new Jewish offerings, a treasure of human and knowledge capital may slip through the cracks and get lost.

I believe that it’s incumbent upon those of us who have supported Jewish startups for these past years to work together, as well as with more established organizations and philanthropists, to rationalize this process. After all, the goals of the startups are the same as those of the rest of the Jewish community – to make Jewish life vibrant, relevant, and enduring. We must find ways to make sure we keep the talent, ideas, and creativity within the community, while accepting that there must be a process of both natural and engineered selection to pare down the offerings, and to strengthen the organizations (both new and established) whose survival is most critical to the Jewish future.

Joshua Avedon is the COO of Jumpstart.