Reflections on the turning of the fiscal year

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The Jewish calendar includes a number of new year’s days (four, according to the Mishnah). January 1 is not among them. Nonetheless, since the transition to 2016 does coincide with the start of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah’s new fiscal year, this is perhaps an opportune time for me to do some reflecting on the past year and some anticipating of what is to come.

Perhaps the pivotal moment of the past year for me came relatively late, in October, with the publication of a Statement on Jewish Vitality, an effort, signed by 74 leaders from various parts of the Jewish community, to mobilize support for a series of programmatic investments aimed at strengthening American Jewish life. The statement was directed at funders (like our foundation) and policy makers. It touched off a vigorous debate about the analysis and strategy underlying its recommendations, as well as the tone of the statement itself. As part of that debate, we as a foundation did something we rarely do: we issued a formal statement in response, laying out our reasons for dissatisfaction with the original statement and outlining our own vision and strategy for promoting Jewish vitality.

We received a number of compliments for that statement from individuals and organizations. But, far more important than what we said is the fact that, entirely independently of our statement, numerous others authored their own responses to the original statement on Jewish vitality saying similar things.

For me, two points above all stand out in these various responses (including our own):

  1. The major challenge in American Jewish life today is not demographic (a “shrinking middle,” as the original statement contended) or technical (how to get more people into programs). It’s substantive: How can we help Jews and those with whom they share their lives (whether Jewish or not) find greater value (meaning, purpose, satisfaction) in their Jewishness, in Jewish teachings, practices, experiences, and community?
  2. There are a myriad of creative endeavors underway today that are responding effectively to this challenge. Some represent “tried-and-true” approaches in familiar settings; some offer new ways of connecting individuals, families, and communities to Jewish teaching and practice and new ways of connecting that teaching and practice to what matters most in people’s lives. To reach today’s highly diverse populace, we need all of these.

These two propositions define to a large extent the path that our foundation has chosen and the work we will focus on in 2016. First, we want to try to ensure that Jews (and others) have access to rich Jewish content, content that is relevant, meaningful, and memorable. We believe that such content can take many forms, be delivered in multiple ways, and in manifold settings. What is critical is that the content, drawn thoughtfully from the vast pool of accumulating wisdom found in Jewish texts, stories, and historical experience, speak to the real concerns and aspirations of the people it is intended for. We know that such content is being produced throughout the Jewish world today. Our goal is to curate and help disseminate the best of it – and to fill gaps where they may exist.

We see the present moment as one of great promise, not crisis. The opportunity exists, we believe, to come together across conventional boundaries that too often separate legacy institutions from start-ups, funders from implementers, thought leaders from front-line practitioners, traditionalists from progressives, to affirm that Jewish life in America today can be increasingly contentful and inclusive, diverse and purposive. We want to take advantage of our position as a foundation focused on applying Jewish wisdom across the many domains of our lives to be a connector, a network weaver, perhaps even a movement builder. We will continue to bring people together for substantive conversations, and in doing so to help forge, we hope, a stronger sense of common endeavor.

These two goals – making great Jewish content available and forging deeper connections among the many organizations and individuals that are revitalizing Jewish life – will be our focus in 2016.

Mindful of Rabbi Tarfon’s injunction, we don’t expect to complete this work, but we will apply ourselves to it diligently. We will be taking some risks, we will make some missteps, and we will try to do a lot of learning.

Most important, we hope to work with you, since that is the only way we can hope to succeed.

Wishing you a productive and fulfilling 2016.

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