The Ruminators

An earlier version of this article was published in Jumpstart’s Huffington Post column.

I have been grappling for some time with the question of where Jewish entrepreneurs fit into the landscape of innovation. How do you define them? Upon first glance, they seem to be social entrepreneurs, those who attempt to solve a major social problem, like poverty, illness, or education, for their work is to preserve and re-vitalize a people, their practices, and beliefs, which have impacted the entire world for millennia. Like social entrepreneurs, they are passionate about their work in and of itself, not for any monetary gain or public accolade, and determined that their contribution will contribute to the social good not only of the Jewish community, but the world at large. Yet I can’t help but feel that their work is somewhat different from that of those, like the Ashoka fellows, attempting to eradicate malaria from rural villages, or helping discriminated groups achieve access to education and jobs. Spiritual and moral needs are critical, but perhaps are in a different category from immediately pressing physical needs.

Nor are they quite like “regular” entrepreneurs, looking for an untapped niche in the marketplace, with the goal not only of introducing something new, but also of becoming the next Google or Facebook – technologically creative, invaluable to the global market, and either quietly or loudly wealthy and famous. But perhaps they are more like these entrepreneurs than we think. Put crudely, they are “selling” something – Judaism, in one form or another – which, like an iPad, is something people do not feel they are lacking, or know that they want. And yet, when they get their hands on it, they can’t seem to let go of it; it enriches, and then defines, their lives.

Neal Gabler, in his article “The Elusive Big Idea” published in The New York Times Week in Review last month, critiques today’s entrepreneurs for not thinking enough, and he got me thinking. He writes:

Entrepreneurs have plenty of ideas, and some, like Steven P. Jobs of Apple, have come up with some brilliant ideas in the “inventional” sense of the word. Still, while these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational. It is thinkers who are in short supply …

I disagree with this assessment. When the way we live is transformed, then, by definition, the way we think is transformed. The ability to cut and paste text and move it around easily in a document has transformed the way we write. The existence of hyperlinks in texts, leading to layers of immediately accessible inter-textuality, has transformed the way we read. The prevalence of images of violence accessible at our fingertips has changed the way we feel and behave towards one another, and on and on.

And yet, there is a kernel of resonance in Gabler’s claim that

In the past … we collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful – into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.

Perhaps this is the niche into which Jewish life, and, therefore, Jewish entrepreneurs fall. This unique realm, from apprehension to comprehension – the space to, and the tradition of, meaning making – is one that the Jewish tradition has made vibrant and invaluable. The process of grappling with core ideas and beliefs and translating them into values and practices that make life more meaningful, engaging, inspiring, and challenging, characterizes Judaism. In their attempt to re-package Judaism for the modern sojourner, Jewish innovators actually inhabit a rich entrepreneurial space, one that seems to be floundering in modern life – the space of rumination.

In an age in which people feel disconnected from their sources of food, Judaism has agricultural laws, and a tradition of blessings before and after eating, that challenge us to stay connected to the earth. In an age that is 24-7, Judaism preaches 24-6, and then packs that unplugged “7” with family time, time in nature, time to sing and eat and love and play, time to make sense of all the information, to pause, to move closer to understanding. In an age in which people are breaking up over Facebook by changing their status, Judaism has a complex set of intra-personal laws, and profound ethical guidance regarding relationships. In an age in which people are constantly searching for meaning, Judaism teaches the value of life-long teaching and learning, personal connections to the past, to the divine, to community – tools for ongoing personal meaning-making.

Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt, in an article called “Design Thinking for Social Innovation” (Stanford Innovation Review, Winter 2010) explain the process of “ideation,” in which teams trying to come up with an innovative solution to a problem begin by first brainstorming a plethora of ideas to solve the problem. They quote Linus Pauling, a scientist and two-time Nobel Prize winner, who said, “To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas.” Brown and Wyatt argue that when we come up with many ideas, the good ones bubble to the top. And, they claim, “truly innovative ideas challenge the status quo and stand out from the crowd – they’re creatively disruptive.”

Today’s global cultural character is one of creative disruptions. That is the fertile space of our entrepreneurs today, and they are challenging us, changing the way we think, and, hopefully, making this world better. But we are, after all, human beings. And disruptions are disruptions. The innovation of Jewish entrepreneurs? To fill that critical niche that nourishes the creativity of the business entrepreneurs, and motivates the ethical imperative of the social entrepreneurs. To provide a space in which to move from apprehension to comprehension, with the rubric of a tradition that has centuries of experience in guiding communities through change-processes, while preserving core practices and beliefs that check the heady highs of change, those that keep us human. Our Jewish innovators, sharing characteristics with both their business and social counterparts, are doing invaluable work, agitating us towards rumination.

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.

For more about the creativity powering the current generation of Jewish social entrepreneurs, see “The Jewish Innovation Economy: An Emerging Market for Knowledge and Social Capital,” recently published by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.