The self-described Jewish innovation sector "mistook changes in methods of communication for changes in the nature of community itself."
NEW YORK — The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter argued famously that the forces of “creative destruction” unleashed by capitalist economies were largely positive, as they favored the best innovations. Just as the mom-and-pop video store was destroyed by Blockbuster and Blockbuster now finds itself made largely obsolete by Netflix, capitalism perpetually lays low old orders, replacing them with more efficient ones better able to take advantage of new technologies.
Following the much-remarked-upon announcement of the closing of the music promoter JDub last week, the American Jewish world may now find itself in its own moment of creative destruction. Coming on the heels of announcements of winding down by other creative start-ups of the self-described Jewish innovation sector like Heeb and Jewcy.com, it’s possible that the much ballyhooed movement has now spent itself out.
That movement has dominated the conversation about young Jews in the United States for the past decade, demanding more initiatives like the fellowships pioneered by the Joshua Venture. Buttressed by the conviction that both personal and collective identity had fundamentally shifted, well-connected young Jews and the network of foundations and writers who supported them came increasingly to set the communal agenda.
These voices got a few important things right, and this accounted for no small part of their success. They grasped far earlier than most the profound changes the Internet would bring, and they understood that this would raise difficult questions about how to maintain healthy organizations and communities. They saw also that some of the major institutions of American Jewish life were hampered by idea-killing bureaucracies with too many staffers who were committed to little more than the perpetuation of their own organizations and hostile to the very idea of change.
As the leading American public intellectual Walter Russell Mead has written, we are at the beginning of the most explosive period of change in human history. For everything from governments to small businesses, profound and ongoing adaptation is now required to simply survive, let alone thrive. This is as true for Jewish institutions as for any other.
The innovation advocates saw and reported this, trying their best to shake organized Jewry from its stupor.
This was overshadowed, though, by what they got wrong. They mistook changes in methods of communication for changes in the nature of community itself, buying into faddish claims about a fundamental shift in individual identity.
Human beings may live in a dramatically changing world, but if the powerful shifts brought on by modernity and the Enlightenment — to say nothing of thousands of years of Western and Jewish philosophy — have proven anything, it is that the human spirit remains unchanging. The world will change but we will remain the same people underneath, with the same need for communities deeper than those found on a computer screen and for grounding in identities that cannot be endlessly mashed and re-imagined.
Worst of all, the innovation advocates placed themselves and the needs of their small cohort above the needs of the Jews they claimed to serve. This blinded them to the fact that they came from backgrounds of day school educations, months or years spent in Israel, and similarly rich Jewish experiences that are utterly foreign to nearly all non-Orthodox American Jews. Drawing on their large capital of Jewish fluency, they could play Jewish symbols against those of other cultures in pleasing games because they always knew where the unspoken lines lay between the Jewish and the non-Jewish.
True outsiders to just about anything Jewish — as most young American Jews are — didn’t understand the game. If you grew up in the outstanding and ever-mixing diversity of contemporary Jewish life in those places where it is truly alive, both in and outside of Israel, Balkan Beat Box need not explain how it speaks to a certain contemporary Jewish reality. But for most Jews it’s just music that they either like or don’t depending on the same tastes that draw them to or repel them from other bands.
So as with their other tastes, it is ignored or easily discarded when something new with nothing Jewish about it comes along.
No wonder, then, that as a major April report by Jumpstart pointed out, two-thirds of the participants in the JDub clones founded in the last decade shared the rich upbringings of the founders. No wonder as well that a report last September written by Jack Wertheimer and sponsored by Avi Chai found that 93 percent of the married leaders of these efforts are hitched to another Jew, even though only 24 percent say they have a problem with intermarriage.
Little wonder, too, that funders are increasingly finding the return on investment low for vanity projects able to appeal only to some of that select portion of the Jewish world that has even heard of JDub.
That cheerleading April Jumpstart report repeatedly cited Schumpeter. Responses from those whose efforts Jumpstart promoted to JDub’s demise may prove that the innovation advocates are perhaps not quite as committed to creative destruction within the Jewish community as they thought, and instead feel that organizations that bear years of collective effort by many hands become institutions and thus acquire an intrinsic value beyond the measure of their actions.
There is talent and passion among the self-styled innovationists. If they can come to see service in the Jewish community as first and last a service to an enduring moral vision, Jewish institutions would do well to embrace them and their ideas. If not, there are other sources of communal leadership, and we should look to them with confidence.
(Matthew Ackerman is a New York-based Middle East analyst for The David Project, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel.)