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The Entrepreneurial Spirit and the Next Big Idea in Jewish Life

April 4, 2017

 

What do the following initiatives have in common? Unaffiliated Jews studying the Hebrew Bible in Virginia; meaning-hungry young urban professionals connecting to spiritual experience by participating in a St. Louis prayer community; and a vegan café in suburban Philadelphia hosting Friday night services.

  1. They each served people who were hungry to encounter Jewish experience outside the synagogue;
  2. They were run, or advised, by someone trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College;
  3. They were funded or aided by an RRC Ignition Grant and demonstrate the small grants can make a difference in getting a big idea off the ground

The year-old Auerbach Entrepreneurial Grant Program is emblematic of RRC’s focus on an entrepreneurial approach to rabbinic education. The 21st-century rabbi is operating in a world where many Jews feel alienated from organized religion. By-and-large, American Jews no longer feel a sense of obligation to join synagogues or participate in a Jewish community. But they do seek to connect in personal and spiritual ways.

In order to serve tomorrow’s diverse, Jewish population, rabbis won’t be able to rely on existing models, and so will need to create new programs and initiatives, both inside and outside of synagogues.

RRC students are required to complete one course in entrepreneurialism and learn how to conceive and implement bold ideas. Donors can support our work in innovation and entrepreneurialism, both in the classroom and in the field, through micro and macro grants.

“It’s an entrepreneur who notices the gap, who notices the need, and jumps in,” explained Cyd Weissman, RRC’s assistant vice president for innovation and impact. Weissman – a noted Jewish educator with a track record for innovation – offered introductory remarks at a recent public presentation at RRC in which seven grant recipients recounted their experiences for students, faculty, and staff.

“We all know our heads are spinning because of all the forces at work that are demanding change and innovation,” said Weissman.  She added that some of the forces changing Jewish life are technology, the diversification of our community, the movement of younger Americans away from identifying with a particular religion and political and societal upheaval.

“There is a rising generation that yearns for meaning, yearns for connection, but are not finding the doors they need to enter, so we need to be creating those new doors,” she said.

The Auerbach Entrepreneurial Grant Program has demonstrated that small dollar amounts can make a difference. The program also helps participants learn how to articulate a plan, manage budgets and interpret results. And, with smaller dollar amounts, they allow rabbi-entrepreneurs the freedom to take risks and, sometimes, the chance to fail and learn from mistakes.The projects themselves have the potential for enormous good, but having the experience of launching something may have an even greater effect down the road.

Current rabbinical students and recent graduates (from 2015 or later) can apply for ignition grants ranging from $500 to $2,000. Ignition grants jumpstart innovative pilot projects for Jewish living and engagement in the 21st century. These projects must have the potential to grow and be replicated. Ignition grants are being awarded on a rolling basis. Weissman stressed that one of these ideas may end up being the next big idea in Jewish life.

“What worked yesterday won't necessarily work today,” said Weissman.  

Students and recent graduates can also apply for a $20,000 Launch Grant that’s handed out once a year. The Launch Grant is a 2:1 matching grant, meaning that recipients must raise or generate $10,000 by the project’s conclusion. Last year’s recipient, student Ariana Katz, used these funds to create a podcast surrounding Jewish mourning. She currently has about 700 listeners per episode and has nearly met the fundraising goal.

In some of the projects, the rabbi or rabbinical student spearheaded the project. Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, ’14, serves unaffiliated Jews in the Virginia Beach area. Rabbi Jaffe-Gill has long sought to connect more Jews to the Hebrew Bible.

“American Jews know less than they could about the Hebrew Bible. I wanted to teach an adult Bible class in a non-affiliated, contemporary, free-wheeling atmosphere,” explained Rabbi Jaffe-Gill. 

So she launched “Torah Study for Skeptics,” and she used her $1,000 grant for advertising and purchasing copies of the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Hebrew Bible. A nearby church offered her free space to teach. The 20 to 30 people who attend each class have tended to be middle age and have brought great questions and passion to the discussion.

In some of the projects, the Ignition Grant grantee served more as an advisor. RRC student Sarah Barasch-Hagans, a St. Louis native, is still deeply involved in her home city and is serving as a consultant and advisor to Ashreinu, an independent minyan serving young professionals that meet in the homes of members throughout the city.

Barasch-Hagans obtained funding for Ashreinu to reach out to new members through coffee dates (paying for 30 coffee dates adds up pretty quickly.) The Ignition Grant also helped members to host their own Shabbat meals by funding a set of ritual objects, a cleaning service, and the necessary tablecloth, dinnerware, flowers and folding chairs that, Barasch-Hagans wrote, “elevates Shabbat into a highlight of the week and makes participants excited to return.”

Barasch-Hagans explained the project aimed to serve “a meaning-hungry young Jewish community without a whole lot of organized resources to meet their needs. They have been doing a lot for no money at all. This grant boosted people that already had a lot of good ideas and a lot of skills. Money is helpful and necessary to keep good leadership going.”

Rabbi Jacob Lieberman, ‘15, of Temple Israel & JCC in New Jersey, works in a synagogue. But his project tackles a deep need of his own that wasn’t being met: the desire to participate meaningfully in social activism but being unable to carve out the time.

“I wanted to do more activism than I had time for. When was this going to happen? How many calls to action could I answer? I did not have any fixed time when I could be sure that I could do it,” he said. “What I began to think about was: what would that structure look like?”

Others, it turned out, were asking many of the same questions. A group of ten people was drawn to the program he devised: Thirty-six/24. Thirty-six/24 combines 36 minutes of social justice activism with 24 minutes of Jewish learning, representing the 24 hours traditional Judaism teaches that Jews should wish to study Torah. (The Torah instructs us 36 times to welcome the stranger in our midst.)

The group of 10 have met monthly, signing petitions and making phone calls on a range of issues - including refugee resettlement and gun violence - while studying related Jewish texts. Rabbi Lieberman expects the group will shift its focus to a single issue.

“In the community that I serve, there are a number of people committed to being part of Jewish life, but are just not drawn by ritual, Shabbat, or holidays,” he said. “When I have met with them one-on-one, they really expressed their interest in social justice. The project became a way to involve people in aspects of congregational life.”

In summing up the program and the accomplishments of the grant recipients, Weissman said that “the entrepreneurial spirit is strong and is shaping the portals to vibrant Jewish life.”

 

If you’re interested in supporting RRC’s commitment to innovation, contact Brian Mono, annual campaign director at bmono@rrc.edu or 215-576-0800, ext. 121.