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.

Grant Announcements – Final Quarter 2016

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Dara Steinberg, Executive Director

 

As we enter the final months of 2016, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is pleased to share several grants that will commence this year:

Amplifier

Amplifier – $51,000 (split between 2016/17) to deploy Jewish educators more extensively across all of Amplifier’s programmatic areas including their new Giving Circle Institute in 2017.  This builds on previously granted funding that developed tools for the giving circle leaders and integrated Jewish wisdom into their Incubator.

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Foundation for Jewish Camp – $100,000 over 2 years to create and disseminate experiential Jewish education resources and content to their camps.  FJC has ideas for several new, innovative programs that will make Jewish wisdom relevant and accessible to campers and is excited to pilot these resources and develop additional new ideas that can be utilized across their extensive network. Continue reading

Bible Raps: A Case Study of Virtual Learning – Scaling learning, Scaling Impact

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By Dara Steinberg, Executive Director

 

The world of virtual education is still very new for the Jewish community, but it has proven its potential elsewhere in the broader education world to create impactful, creative learning environments. Virtual tools can enable an excellent educator to get into more classrooms with great efficiency – which has some tremendous implications for the many Jewish communities in the US and around the world. By expanding access to great teachers, to unique teachers, organizations can add needed variety to their classes’ curricula, it opens non-traditional methods of Torah learning to audiences that might not otherwise have access, and allows a talented small organization to scale its impact. Continue reading

Sector Grants: An Experiment

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by Dara Steinberg, Executive Director

 

Leverage.

If we were taking the Nonprofit SATs the analogy might be: “Leverage is to Funders, as Sustainability is to Nonprofits.”  To be flip, it’s the buzzword each constituency wants most.  In seriousness, it’s a prompt to take a thoughtful look at “How can we be better and more effective using our resources?”

As a small-to-mid-sized foundation, we are constantly thinking about how we can make all of our work – grants, programming, thought leadership, and communications – more effective and have stronger and wider impact. A recent planning grant to the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is exciting, not only because of the grant’s own merits, but because it is our first experiment in what we’ve been referring to as “sector grants.” Continue reading

Jewish Identity and a New Vocabulary

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By Rabbi Lee Moore

 

This article was originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy on May 30, 2016, contributing to ongoing discussions in that publication.  

“Jewish identity” is too vague and ambiguous to be a useful construct as the end-goal of Jewish education and Jewish life. In his eJPpiece “Speaking of Jewish Identity” Andres Spokoiny presents this idea and then asks exactly the right question: given that the language of “Jewish identity” is increasingly “limiting us and conditioning us in ways that are detrimental to the objectives we claim” … what words are more specific and effective that can lead us into a constructive discussion about outcomes in Jewish life?

Speaking of words, we have a vocabulary list to offer. It’s not complete, but it starts to approximate a way we might speak about how “Jewish ideas, values, languages, history, rituals, emotions, and behaviors inform particularly Jewish lenses and tools to interpret reality and flourish as human beings” – to address Spokoiny’s challenge.

Over the last two years, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah has been experimenting with a framework that we call Jewish Sensibilities. 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

When, how, why to ask – our theory of questions

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This post was inspired by reflections on Mamie Kanfer Stewart’s ELI Talk.

As children we were taught “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Today, thanks to the story of Nobel Laureate Isidor I. Rabi, many parents are now inspired by his mother’s example and, in an effort to foster children who are creative and critical thinkers ask “Did you ask a good question today?” instead of “What did you do today?”

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But we can also go too far, making a fetish out of asking questions, even and especially the good ones. Continue reading

Learning to Fish – An Underlying Philosophy of our Work

As a funder, we strive to be partners with our grantees, and to always show our respect for their work (and not just their desired outcomes). For a greater sense of what that means as well as the deeply Jewish roots from which the approach springs, this ELI Talks video from our Board Member Mamie Stewart Kanfer explains it all. Continue reading

Learning Objectives – An Introduction to Ours

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At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah we’re focused on how to help Jews (and non-Jews) engage with Jewish Wisdom and Sensibilities in ways that enable them to live better lives and shape a better world.

A hallmark of our work at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah is that we approach grantmaking as an opportunity to learn – for us, and for our grantee partners. In addition to being a learning organization in the ways we conduct our internal processes, we also want to keep learning so that we can, from our corner of the Jewish community, continue to help the field learn and grow as well.

To this end, we have formulated an explicit set of questions about the process of transmitting, cultivating, and applying Jewish Wisdom and Sensibilities that we call our Learning Objectives. Continue reading

Grantmaking 2014

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2014 was Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah’s first full calendar year of operation. Our work incorporates a variety of strategies for advancing the understanding and application of what we call Living Torah.  But our most direct way of doing so is by supporting projects and partners who share our perspective through grants. As we start 2015, it’s exciting for us to look back at the portfolio we’ve built over the last year and to take a minute to celebrate the organizations we’ll be partnering with over the next several months. Continue reading