Initial Reflections on the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom

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By Jon Woocher, Senior Fellow

 

When we initiated the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, we did not know what to expect. Would organizations be interested in a competition that asked them to describe how they were “applying Jewish wisdom” in their activities? Would they even understand what we meant by that phrase? Would we find a handful of examples or more than a few? Would the organizations who understood themselves to be applying Jewish wisdom in their work be able to demonstrate that their programs reached a significant number of participants or had any impact on them?

Now that the inaugural Prize competition is reaching its final stages, with the winners due to be chosen this month by a panel of external judges, the answers to some of these questions seem clear. Well over two hundred organizations submitted programs that sought to apply Jewish wisdom in a wide variety of ways to a broad range of life concerns, reaching diverse populations. But even more impressive than the number of programs was the quality of reflection revealed in the submissions. We asked applicants for the Prize (among other questions): 1) What Jewish wisdom they use in their work; 2) How their program makes this wisdom accessible and applicable to their audiences’ lives; and 3) What they have learned about applying Jewish wisdom. Their answers to these questions provide a wide window into a phenomenon in American Jewish life that we now have reason to believe is both more widespread and more impactful than has previously been recognized. Amidst the hand-wringing about assimilation and disaffiliation that often dominates discussion of the state of Jewish life, we see enormous grass-roots energy and creativity in developing new forms of Jewish self-expression and community-building that surveys simply cannot capture.

Fully mining the treasure trove of information contained in the 200 plus Semifinalists for the Prize (all of the program profiles are available at www.lippmankanferprize.org) will take many months. We plan to share our own ongoing analysis of the applications with you on a regular basis, and we invite others to use the database (including supplementary materials on many of the programs that we will be happy to make available) for their own inquiries and research.

Based on an initial reading of the submissions, we can offer a few findings of note that bear further investigation and elaboration:

  1. Program developers and sponsors are not shying away from incorporating serious Jewish content in their programs, but are acutely aware of the need to make this content relevant to their audiences.

Far from offering a “Judaism lite” approach, many of the programs submitted incorporate original Jewish texts, traditional Jewish practices (even including some that might be labeled “esoteric”), and serious encounter with these as important components. At the same time, programs strive to connect these to real life interests and concerns of participants and to empower participants to engage actively and creatively, not just passively, with these wisdom elements. Many programs are explicit in articulating the Jewish values and concepts that they seek to embody and to transmit, and they present these as directly relevant to the lives of their audiences.

  1. There is virtually no area of contemporary life that is not addressable and being addressed by Jewish wisdom.

The breadth and diversity of areas where Jewish wisdom is being actively applied today is impressive. The programs submitted for the Prize cover every age and life-stage and bring Jewish teachings and practices to bear on everything from physical well-being to spiritual development to social change to planetary sustainability. Programs are applying Jewish concepts and values to investing, parenting, food production and distribution, addiction recovery, negotiating adolescence and ageing, building caring communities, making art, developing leaders, and a myriad of other areas that reflect both timeless human concerns and timely issues. Although it is certainly true that not every Jew has access to the full range of these programs – many are local and relatively small, it is also true that these programs demonstrate the nearly unlimited potential of Jewish wisdom to help people live better lives and shape a better world.

  1. “Jewish wisdom” is a compound of teachings, practices, and relationships.

Perhaps the most far-reaching finding from an initial review of the submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize is that “Jewish wisdom” as embodied in these programs is more than an intellectual construct. Yes, teachings – ideas, concepts, values – are central to what nearly all of these programs seek to convey. And, indeed, many of the programs include study and discussion of Jewish texts, classical and contemporary, as an important component. But, the majority of the programs also involve two other dimensions that make “Jewish wisdom” something more powerful than merely a set of ideas. Many of the programs embed their teaching in a set of practices that bring these teachings to life. These are not only how wisdom gets “applied,” but how it gets conveyed, in ritual (traditional and new), in artistic production, in work to make change in the world. There is a second key element as well in these programs: the fostering of relationships. Many of the programs submitted not only transmit ideas, they create communities. How teachings, practices, and relationship-building work together to create impact – to change lives – is one of the aspects of transmitting and applying Jewish wisdom in the contemporary world that bears further examination.

These three initial “findings” from the set of submissions for the Lippman Kanfer Prize in Applied Jewish Wisdom only begin to scratch the surface of what we hope to learn from this rich data source. The individual programs themselves represent potential models for replication and adaptation – and we hope that people will find both inspiration and practical ideas in them. Taken as a whole, they present a portrait of Jewish activism and creativity that is exciting and energizing. Although only a few of the programs will in the end be the Prize winners, the real winners are all of us who are benefitting from these programs, whose lives are being bettered and who are finding in Jewish wisdom a profound source of inspiration and guidance.

Aaron Dorfman Named President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: 7/20/16

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Dorfman To Take Reins of Foundation Sept. 1, Founding President To Become Foundation’s First Senior Fellow

Akron, OH –Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah announced today that Aaron Dorfman will become its second President, effective September 1, 2016. Part of Lippman Kanfer Family Philanthropies, the Foundation launched in 2013 with the purpose “to repair and enrich the world through thriving Jewish life.” Dorfman will take over the role from Jonathan Woocher, PhD, who will remain on the Foundation’s professional staff as its inaugural Senior Fellow.

“I’m honored,” Dorfman shared, “to have been chosen to work alongside the board, staff, and grantees of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah to build upon and grow the Foundation’s impact. In this era of complexity and uncertainty, I believe that Judaism’s ever-growing reservoir of wisdom can offer valuable guidance for our personal lives, our communities, and the broader world. I’m grateful for the strong foundation laid by Jon Woocher and am excited by the opportunity to continue to catalyze meaningful and lasting change.”

A Brooklyn resident with more than 20 years of experience in the Jewish community, Aaron Dorfman spent a decade at American Jewish World Service, rising from Director of Education to Vice President for National Programs, building the division and managing both program strategy and grantmaking with great success, overseeing strategic planning and an organizational restructure. An alumnus of Harvard Kennedy School, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Dorfman was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and has also trained with the AK Rice Institute and the Rockwood Leadership Program. He began his career as the Director of Informal Education at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Known as an effective and inclusive agent for social change as well as a respected leader, Dorfman will be returning to the Jewish professional world from his most recent role as Vice President and Campaign Director at Encore.org, an organization that mobilizes older adults to support the social good.

“Aaron brings passion, vision, and expertise to our Foundation’s work,” says Board Chair Marcella Kanfer Rolnick. “His experience building and leading teams and strategic change will help advance our impact in the Jewish community. We look forward to what he will be able to bring to our partner and grantee relationships, as a thought leader and an experienced educator in his own right.” Kanfer Rolnick cited Dorfman’s wide interests, dedication to family, strong Jewish values, and “menschlichkeit” as key reasons the board selected him as President. She added, “Aaron has big shoes to fill, following our first President, Dr. Jonathan Woocher. We’re confident he will do so, in collaboration with our other Foundation colleagues, and we’re also delighted that Jon will continue to be a unique intellectual resource for the Foundation in his new role as Senior Fellow.”

“It’s been a privilege,” said Woocher, “to shape the Foundation as it emerged into the Jewish world with its mission to help Jews and fellow travelers apply Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to live better lives and shape a better world. Aaron is uniquely qualified to take the Foundation forward on the next steps in its journey. I look forward to remaining actively involved and working under Aaron’s leadership to further the work of Living Torah.”

Since its founding in 2013, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has distributed more than $4.4 million in grants to over 40 grantees, hosted a number of gatherings convening Jewish professionals, funders and other thought leaders, released a Jewish Sensibilities card deck as a tool for the field with over 2,300 distributed to date, and launched the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, which will award its first prizes this December.

 

 

Announcing: Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom

An important announcement from our Board President, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, joined by Board Member Joe Kanfer and Foundation President Jon Woocher.

 

 
 

Visit our prize site at www.lippmankanferprize.org and apply NOW!

 

And please help us spread the word!!!  We’ve made it easy for you – just click here to instantly Tweet: Check out the new prize from @lippmankanfer http://ctt.ec/31z8a+ Recognizing and rewarding programs that apply Jewish Wisdom

Applying Jewish Wisdom – Making A Watchword

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By Jon Woocher, President

 

There’s great risk in trying to characterize the historical moment one is living in. I should know. In the early and mid 1980s I wrote about the ascendancy of an American Jewish “civil religion,” anchored in the Jewish federation system and celebrating values of Jewish solidarity and survivalism. Within a few years it had become evident that this civil religion was in fact beginning to decline in its reach and influence. Personalism, not communalism, was the growing force in Jewish life – as in American religious life in general. 1980s Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart), not 1960s Robert Bellah (“Civil Religion in America”), was speaking more directly to the moment, and would continue to do so for several decades.

So it is with some trepidation that I suggest that the present moment in American Jewish life is marked by a growing focus on a new defining theme. Nonetheless, I believe the evidence is accumulating that this is precisely the case.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Jewish Continuity at 25

“Jewish Continuity” at 25: What Did We Achieve? What Have We Learned?

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Reflections by Jon Woocher, President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah

 

It isn’t really the 25th anniversary of what came to be called the “Jewish continuity” endeavor in North America. The first Continuity Commission was established in Cleveland before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was mounted; and the first results of the 1990 NJPS – including the alarm-ringing, hand-wringing statistic of a 52% intermarriage rate – didn’t appear until the calendar had turned. But, 1990 is a convenient enough date to mark the beginning of a significant effort that has unfolded over the past two and a half decades aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and engagement among American Jews, many of whom, it was argued then and since (viz. the reactions to the 2013 Pew study) are in danger of or are already being lost to Jewish life as active participants.

I’ve been part of and a witness to these efforts. Continue reading

Living Torah and the New Jewish Learning

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Nearly a century ago, the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig called for a “new Jewish learning,” one that “no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way round, from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah…. [I]n being Jews we must not give up anything, not renounce anything, but lead everything back to Judaism. From the periphery back to the center; from the outside, in.”

This remains a bold prescription – and certainly not the only way to study Torah and do Jewish education. But, the reality to which Rosenzweig was responding then is still with us today: For many Jews, starting with the text, with traditional teaching, begs an important question – why and how is this relevant to my life? Continue reading

Universalism vs. Particularism – Thoughts from Limmud NY

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Last weekend, for the first time in more years than I would like to admit, I participated in the Limmud NY conference, held (appropriately, for those who believe New Yorkers are inherently imperialistic) in Stamford, Connecticut. Limmud is now a global “brand” for dozens of conferences held annually around the world, including the “mother ship” that takes place in England each December. Limmud NY is North America’s largest, with more than 700 participants, and it’s distinctive among Jewish conferences in several ways. Continue reading

(Re)Launch – Wherefore this blog?

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Welcome to the “relaunch” of our blog – it’s technically been just over a year since our first post, and in that year we’ve done a lot of off-line work with grantees and partners. Now, we’re ready to turn to our goal of sharing what we’re learning more widely, and in turn, learning from all of you.

Our wish for this blog:

  • CONVERSATION: We are proud of our work as a funder, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers. This blog is a chance for us to open up and work through – with a community of thoughtful readers – our strategies and learning. We know your input will make us stronger, and we hope our perspective and the ongoing conversations will be useful to you.
  • CELEBRATION: We are proud of our grantees and their work. We are amazed by and appreciative of all of the innovators who are bringing a “Living Torah” perspective on Jewish life to new audiences – with and without our support. We plan to tell as many stories as we can – celebrating successes, and the new insights that come from the work of these innovators and the challenges they face.
  • COMMUNITY: We know that Jewish Wisdom has much to say to the contemporary world. want to connect those who share this belief and are working to cultivate, transmit, and apply what we call “Jewish Sensibilities.”

In the end, we hope this blog will reflect not only our voice, but yours as well. Please share your thoughts. You can also follow us on Twitter and “like” us on Facebook, and please subscribe at the top of this page to get emails from us whenever we publish new content.)

We’re excited to take this next step. We welcome your suggestions, your feedback, your constructive critiques.   The blog is a work in progress, as is our journey as a foundation.

-Jon Woocher, President

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