First as one of Ikar’s founders, then at Synagogue 3000, and currently at Jumpstart, I’ve had the privilege to work in the U.S., Europe, and Israel with leaders of new organizations and communities of all types and persuasions. I came to this work as someone who grew up disaffected from Jewish life, but who came to embrace the tradition and community as an adult. So I suppose my mission is to save people from the kind of anodyne organized Jewish life that turned me off as a kid, and help build the kind of irresistible Jewish community that turned me on as an adult.
Throughout my travels, exchanges, and work with new communities a number of traits have come to define the phenomenon dubbed Jewish Emergent by my partner at Jumpstart, Shawn Landres. While Jewish life has of necessity evolved and been re-fashioned over our people’s long history, there’s an acceleration and particular character to the burst of innovation that began around the outset of the 21st century.
For starters there’s an intentional shift from program to relationship as the framework for building community. Instead of seeing individuals as Jewish consumers who need products created by and sold through organizations, Jewish Emergent communities focus foremost on intertwining people and experiences and ideas to weave communities. So programs become more an expression of desire and interest rather than a net to capture and retain people.
Which leads to the second concept: the rise of the producer/consumer. Emerging communities tend to break the typical top down delivery system dominant in the mainstream Jewish world. While most legacy organizations are still funded by philanthropists, governed by lay-leaders, managed by professionals, and delivered to the Jewish public, in emergent communities these aren’t distinct roles or different individuals – and participants often move fluidly between them. Communities are built by and for the same people, which makes them fully authentic reflections of common ideals and aesthetics, not something manufactured and packaged by one group for another to consume.
Third, also flowing from the previous two, these communities are based on shared values, not shared demographics. Whether that means having a post- or non-denominational bent, participants with differing observance levels, or embracing people regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, beliefs, or origin, the bottom line is common ground, not common characteristics. This is a real departure from the 20th century Jewish Industrial Complex. By abandoning the silos of movement affiliation and division by ritual practice, the concept of “outreach” has been upended. Rather than seeing recruitment as a separate activity from serving the core, emergent communities tend to operate like a solar system. The gravity is often supplied by the highly invested and educated at the center, but that intensity extends to draw in those who are less engaged, peripheral, or episodic. By mixing those who are deeply bought-in with those who are unfamiliar, curious, or even skeptical, the people at the center provide heat, energy, and enthusiasm which exerts a pull on those in every orbit.
Joshua Avedon is a social entrepreneur, educator, facilitator, philanthropic advisor, and executive coach. As co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart Labs, a global research and design lab for creative philanthropy and social change, Joshua has spent the last several years writing, teaching, and advocating around the globe for social and communal innovation in the Jewish world and beyond.