The Pursuit of Innovation Takes Many Forms

By Barry Finestone

There’s no one way to innovate. In Jewish education and engagement, creating change and developing new approaches comes in many forms, often through much trial and error. In the Jim Joseph Foundation’s guest blog this month, we share the innovation approach and journey of one grantee-partner, Sefaria, which offers insights on how finding a solution to one challenge often simply means that more innovating is yet to be done. Another grantee-partner, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, frames its entire approach on “the hypothesis that the future of Jewish life, in a climate of personal autonomy and choice, depends entirely on whether Judaism can compete in the marketplace of ideas and identities.” This hypothesis is a call for innovation, reflected throughout SHNA; its David Hartman Fellowship, for example, focuses on “innovation in applied scholarship.” From these and many other partners, the Foundation is learning about the different approaches to innovation, as well as the different ways the Foundation can support this work.

This learning is occurring as the place of innovation has grown in our field. What was once a nascent part of Jewish learning, “innovation” now is an arguably overused term. For it not to lose its meaning, we, as a field, need to constantly examine what innovation looks like today and how organizations and individuals are pursuing it. Three additional organizationsReboot, Upstart, and Hillelserve as useful examples for different ways and strategies with which to approach innovation. They operate, respectively, at theIdeas Level,” theImplementer Level,” and theOrganizational Level.” Funders and grantees, we believe, both have something to gain by understanding how these different approaches drive innovation in our fields, and how failure and humility are requisite traits as one pursues innovation.

Ideas Level: Reboot “reimagines, reinvents and reinforces Jewish culture and traditions for wandering Jews and the world we live in.” The heartbeat of Reboot is a network of creative and successful artists, makers and thinkers, now over 600 members strong, who are organized around a conversation about Jewish inheritance and action, leading to ideas and products that remix Judaism to inspire and engage new generations of Jews and those close to them.

Reboot’s support system for its network enables individuals to bring modern themes through a Jewish lens into the world. The Foundation invested in Reboot in part because of its R&D focus, which includes increasing the activation of its network as well as the products that Reboot develops, which have touched millions of people and helped evolve the Jewish conversation. Innovation occurs because ideas and concepts can be proposed and experimented with. Reboot is developing an Ideas Festival, for example, to bring together thinkers/makers/artists to discuss new big ideas in the space of Jewish arts and culture, and what methods can be used to share them broadly.

Implementer Level: UpStart “partners with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together.” It represents a different approach to innovation, one focused primarily on fueling and connecting the many organizations and leaders driving change in Jewish life. They do this by providing targeted support for changemakers at every stage, whether they’re dreaming up a new idea, building it into a promising initiative, or ultimately growing that initiative’s impact. And they do this across the field of Jewish communal life, supporting entrepreneurs and their ventures, as well as institutional leaders working to drive change from within (“intrapreneurs”). They believe that the true impact of this work is in the coming together of these changemakers to move the needle on the many challenges – and opportunities – facing Jewish life. Convenings like their annual Collaboratory are just one of the many spaces that spur this type of collaboration.

UpStart aims to couple this program suite with more substantial financial resources flowing to the Jewish innovation field – specifically to the organizations and leaders they support. Their goal is to spur strategic and sustainable investments, ensuring that the highest impact initiatives are set up to thrive.

Organizational Level: Hillel International, which connects with students at more than 550 colleges and universities across North America and around the world, “enriches the lives of those students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” Hillel serves as a perfect final reference point, building on UpStart’s learning that any organization can spur innovation. At nearly 100 years old, Hillel is a quintessential legacy organization – although, uniquely, one that is unafraid of experimenting and of change. To create space for innovation within Hillel, the organization founded an Office of Innovation (OOI) that “is a think and do tank for the Hillel movement and the Jewish people. Modeled after successful research and innovation labs, known affectionately as ‘skunkworks,’ OOI is a group of thinkers, educators, entrepreneurs, and rabbis tasked with developing, testing, and scaling innovative approaches to serve young Jews in the Hillel movement and beyond.”

In other words, the OOI gains all the benefits of Hillel’s resources, networks, and expertise, without being hindered by people’s traditional perceptions of legacy organizations. Creating an entirely separate office helps ensure this work is carried out systemically and strategically. This is not an ad-hoc initiative or one susceptible to starts and stops. Rather, its three-step approach – exploring, incubating, and scaling – resulted in innovations going from the OOI out into the world, including Base Hillel, Fellowship for Rabbinic Entrepreneurs, and more.

A Common Denominator

While Reboot, UpStart, and Hillel, deploy different approaches to supporting innovation, undoubtedly there are similarities. One of which is that all three completed strategic and business planning over the last five years that positioned them to understand the role in innovation support they were best suited to play. They all recognize that to support innovation effectively they need to have dedicated bandwidth, and they need the right people within their own organizations—both lay and professional. The decision to become innovative was not made by a singular individual in any organization; that decision was made collectively through a planning process of lay and professional leaders over many months for each of these organizations.

Finally, each organization along with the Foundation must be humble as it works to innovate. There are and will be failures, and all parties involved know this and accept it. For each success noted above, there are myriad ideas and programs that at one point seemed promising, but in the end were not effective Jewish engagement or could not be scaled. Truly accepting that these failures are a natural part of the innovation process is an integral part of the grantee and funder building a trusting relationship. Whether an organization fits best into the “Ideas,” “Implementer,” or “Organizational,” level, each approach leverages an organization’s resources and expertise to support innovation and to create new opportunities for contemporary, meaningful, and never-before-done Jewish experiences.

Barry Finestone is President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation.