Innovating Jewishly

From technology to the environment and from social justice to Jewish education, these new innovations are part of a growing spectrum of the seemingly infinite ways to live and identify Jewishly in the 21st century.

Challa 521 * DO NOT REPUBLISH * (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Challa 521 * DO NOT REPUBLISH *
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
WHEN SHE WAS A freshman in college, Eli Winkelman created Challah for Hunger, an initiative that tapped a network of volunteers to bake and sell challah to raise money for hunger relief in the Sudan. In just seven years, the organization has grown to include 40 chapters across the globe.
Winkelman is only 26 years old.
In today’s parlance, Winkelman is known as a “social entrepreneur,” the current buzzword for someone who combines the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.
The man credited with coining the phrase is Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, the most well-known international network for social entrepreneurs. “Social entrepreneurs,” he is famous for saying, “are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”
These “fishing revolutionaries” are not just instigating change throughout the world at large – they are reshaping Jewish life.
When it comes to the Jewish world, social entrepreneurs are essential to the creation of a more pluralistic, multi-faceted and thriving Jewish future.
Recent studies by Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based think tank that defines itself as a “thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation,” identified more than 300 Jewish social start-ups across the globe, all of which are connecting people to Jewish life in the broadest possible ways. From technology to the environment and from social justice to Jewish education, these new innovations are part of a growing spectrum of the seemingly infinite ways to live and identify Jewishly in the 21st century.
A few examples: Jewcology, an online resource for the entire Jewish environmental community; G-dcast, which makes quirky cartoons out of classic Jewish texts to educate today’s youth; and Moishe House, which supports group homes across the globe for 20-something Jews.
Taken together, these and the hundreds of other innovations make up the new mosaic of Jewish life.
WHILE THERE HAVE NO doubt always been social entrepreneurs setting up ventures to the betterment of society, social entrepreneurship as a concept has only really exploded in the Jewish world over the past decade.
The creation of organizations like Taglit-Birthright Israel that, since 1999, have connected hundreds of thousands of young Jews to their identity through transformative free trips to Israel, marked the beginning of the movement.
Taglit-Birthright Israel does not merely transform its participants – it transforms communities. Once these same young Jews began to return to their home communities, full of enthusiasm about their time in Israel, the organized Jewish world had to figure out how to engage a population for whom the one-size-fits-all packages no longer fit. This challenged communities to reach out to this increasingly diverse and niche-driven generation.
This is where a new breed of social entrepreneurs and “intrapreneurs” – creative innovators working within established organizations – come into the mix to help reconfigure Jewish life.
And they are doing so on their own terms.
The result of this mostly grass-roots effort gives young Jews new ways to connect to Jewish life while bettering society.
In the simplest terms, this means that Jews no longer have to choose between bettering the environment and connecting to Judaism.
With the rise in Jewish environmental organizations and farms, they can now do both.
In many respects, social entrepreneurship can be thought of in terms of wide versus deep. The old paradigm of Jewish life brings together people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and lifestyles under one very broad roof; the new niche-driven enterprises provide smaller pockets of the population with the opportunity to delve deeply into whatever moves their soul.
The sum result is that now more people than ever before are involved in Jewish life in ways that are meaningful to them.
The technological explosion has made connecting to Jewish life especially easy.
Social media, VoIP, mass customization, virtual reality and accessible air travel enable social entrepreneurs to reach a mass audience and create community across the globe in ways that would have once seemed impossible.
Technology has indeed reduced a once vast and disparate world into a global village.
Now someone in Cleveland or Moscow can be part of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Africa - learning about it online, then volunteering  onsite. Modeled on Israel’s Yemin Orde youth village to help Rwandan orphans, its former director of volunteer services is the social entrepreneur Rachel Olstein Kaplan who is set to launch a new project centered on the concept of tikkun olam.
So far, organizations like ROI Community, which is an international community of young Jewish leaders, innovators and professionals who collaborate on projects to strengthen local and global Jewish communities; PresentTense, an organization that has set as its goal to nurture the next generation of social entrepreneurs; and others have stepped into the arena to offer these innovators the networking and professional development they need to build and create the Jewish life that they envision for themselves.
But the proliferation of these new kinds of communities is not only in the hands of the social entrepreneurs. Jewish communal institutions would be wise to shift their perception of these activists from competitors or consumers to partners and co-creators.
Through these initiatives, the Jewish world will be able reach and engage even more people and welcome them into a larger and more wide-reaching global Jewish community.
They are, in short, nothing less than the wave of our Jewish future.
As for the Jewish social entrepreneurs themselves? Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told a group during ROI’s annual Summit in Jerusalem, in June 2011, “Don’t be in a hurry to join the establishment.
Do whatever you believe is right.
Go ahead and do it and the establishment will join you.”
Justin Korda is Executive Director of ROI Community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman.