Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

Today’s Joshua Venture Group Fellows: Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow

by Lisa Lepson

After growing up in an Conservative Jewish household in Flatbush, I yearned to discover what lay beyond my limited world. At 18, I left Brooklyn for Brown University, and saw no need to spend much time at Hillel. It was familiar and comfortable, just more of the same.

I went to college to explore.

When I was a sophomore, I decided I needed to spend a semester focusing on women’s literature in Cameroon. It was before email was prevalent, and my father was not fond of my disappearance to a place that seemed to him to be the end of the earth. After my tireless begging, he relented, agreeing to pay for the trip.

In Cameroon, I lived by myself in a small village during my 3-week independent project. During this time, I experienced a Yom Kippur like no other: there were no services, but I fasted to remind myself that I was connected to all the other Jews in the world. This experience forced me to me look inward, helping me see that it was possible to create and define my own Jewish identity.

When I returned to Providence, I felt drawn to get involved with Hillel, but in the way that spoke to me personally – combining Judaism and feminism. To that end, I co-founded Jewish Women’s Week during Women’s History Month. That project renewed my faith in Judaism’s special adaptive qualities, and I took pride in how the different movements and sects have fluidly morphed, grown, and added to each, yet always maintaining a base of similarities, traditions and histories.

Gary Rosenblatt recently wrote in The Jewish Week, “We seem to be trying to convince younger Jews that they need what we are offering rather than listening to what it is they want. And what they want – at least those with any interest in Jewish life – is hands-on, accessible projects that speak more to universal than parochial concerns, like social justice, social networking and the environment.”

At Joshua Venture Group (JVGroup), where we support emerging social entrepreneurs in the Jewish community, our goal is to support people who have found what is relevant to them in Judaism. I am not alone in my wanderings away and back towards my roots – our fellows often come to their project through a process of reflection and self-discovery. We seek to enable them to express their Jewish values, because only by maintaining our tradition of adaptation and growth will our ancient traditions survive.

JVGroup recently chose our cohort for the 2010-2012 Dual Investment Program. Our eight fellows represent Judaism’s new topography, but they are grounded in tradition. Whether it’s combining environmental values with our traditions, building a co-operative Synagogue model, or bringing Jewish literacy to people through media they can engage with, Joshua Venture’s new fellows are reinterpreting our traditions, just as our forefathers and foremothers have for millennia.

When I first became executive director, I looked up the term “innovation.” The dictionary told me that innovation is “the introduction of something new.” Yet, “new” is not at the core of what we do. Instead, we hope to transform and adapt something very, very old. As Alison Laichter of Jewish Meditation Center told me, “I’m not new school, I’m very old school.” It’s true – we are all old school at JVGroup. We appreciate the gifts that have been passed down to us with care and love, and we treasure the stories, the values, and the community. Our projects are about Jewish education, tikkun olam, building community and spirituality, and above all, teaching our children to love and appreciate what we love and appreciate. The Judaism that is evolving before our eyes isn’t really new or innovative. In fact, the whole concept of evolution is at the core of Judaism.

What our social entrepreneurs are doing is making tradition relevant to us once more, fusing them with contemporary values and bestowing upon them new life. They are leading a vibrant “re-generation” of our cultural and spiritual heritage. The support of our social entrepreneurs is hardly “innovative”, but it is undoubtedly, transformative and adaptive – which is in itself – something completely Jewish.

Lisa Lepson is the executive director of Joshua Venture Group.