“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” An appropriate choice of
words for a chief ideas officer, which is what Jonathan Woocher is at the Jewish
Education Service of North America.
And he aptly borrowed this quote from
Alan Kay, computer scientist and visionary, to conclude the Monday morning
session on Jewish Futures that he was involved in initiating at the General
Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Ideology is out, they warn me, on the way to New Orleans
In aging Jewish leadership, youth seek place at table
It was a fitting
conclusion to a series of exhilarating presentations by eight creative, original
and accomplished Jewish innovators of the next generation.
In their 20s
and 30s, they opened a window for the rest of us onto a fantasy land of Jewish
community, learning and organizational life on whose shores they were already
standing. And they invited those of us still wed to old ways to wet our feet as
well and disembark from the tried but tired ways of doing things to which we
have become accustomed.
The implicit message throughout the two-hour
voyage was that it was dangerous for the established Jewish community to remain
aboard the vessels that had been worthy of the task of carrying the Jewish
people forward throughout the last century, but that by now had become somewhat
obsolete – and are leaking badly. Better to embrace experimentation with the
unfamiliar. It will soon enough become the norm, whether we like it or
Embracing “vessels” like Shabbat dinners by Skype, so that
grandchildren might hear their grandparents recite Kiddush though separated by
oceans. Internalizing statistics that show one out of six marriages today is the
result of a romance begun online. Appreciating popularized Jewish community
affiliation, so that “belonging” doesn’t necessarily demand unmanageable
membership fees. Finding prayer books that are the result of online
collaboration of like-minded souls from around the globe.
“How many of
you are using iPhones, iPads or iPods?” we were asked at one point in the
Probably 80% of the assembled raised their hands. The
conclusion: “Apple is the fastest-growing religion in the world
It’s tempting to dismiss such declarations as gimmicky and
frivolous, but the presenters were not snake charmers (though they were
charming) and they were not selling magic potions (though with a genuine voodoo
shop right next door to the New Orleans hotel hosting the event, I must admit
that the thought crossed my mind).
No, they are committed to tradition
and serious learning. They simply believe these need be observed and accessed in
ways that those of us who can’t navigate mobile devices are unable to
That means, we were told, that if our ancient sources are
going to have contemporary appeal they are going to have to be open, re-mixable,
meaningful, relevant and conducive to building community. I won’t present the
whole lecture here, but in a nutshell, it seems that Andy Warhol, Google News
and Rabbi Akiva all understand something that many of us older folk do
Back in my room, inspired but still scratching my head, I picked up
the USA Today that had been placed by the door. On the front page, there is a
picture of Charlotte, an adorable 3-year old rollicking on the floor and
cuddling with her iPhone 4. The story: Tiny fingers of technology-savvy toddlers
itch for their hi-tech “playmates,” downloading nursery rhymes accompanied by
animations they are involved in creating. Unlike the rest of us who are in the
process of converting, Charlotte was born into the world’s fastest growing
I am grateful to JFNA for demonstrating the courage to gaze
into Charlotte’s future and ours, and for letting me know that it is already
I am even more grateful that the sponsors of this Jewish Futures
Conference – The Jewish Education Project of New York, The Covenant Foundation
and JESNA – have seen fit to make room for those who are destined to live it.
Together, they exemplify those whom our sages defined as being wise: those who
are able to envision what is yet to be born.
The write is vice chairman
of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive.