Diving Into the Tank: Spotlighting Social Entrepreneurship Models at Convention | Reconstructing Judaism

Diving Into the Tank: Spotlighting Social Entrepreneurship Models at Convention

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What ideas are Jewish communities exploring to reach unengaged and under-engaged populations in new ways and spaces? What conversations are taking place about how to fund such ideas? How can communities gain the confidence to try, and possibly fail, in order to implement the next idea?

These questions will be front-and-center during the closing program of “Rooted and Relevant: Reconstructing Judaism in 2018,” the Reconstructionist movement’s first convention in nearly a decade. The program, “Reconstructing Shark Tank,” is inspired by the hit ABC series “Shark Tank,” which over the course of nine seasons has generated interest in entrepreneurship, venture capitalism, product design and engineering, in addition to concepts such as scalability and seed-funding.

In recent years, the religious world in general and Reconstructing Judaism in particular have embraced the social entrepreneurship model, recognizing that certain skills and approaches transfer well from the business world to the religious world. The shift is also a response to the hypothesis that congregations and Jewish organizations may need new programs, as well as community models, to inspire current and future generations of Jewish families. For several years, Reconstructionist rabbinical students have been required to study entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial grants, which have been made available to current students and recent graduates by Reconstructing Judaism, have provided the funding and logistical support for emergent religious leaders to gain experience in turning ideas into realities.

“Reconstructing Shark Tank” has widened the net, offering communities across North America and beyond — those affiliated with the movement and those not — a chance to win funding for an innovative idea that strengthens Jewish community. At the national convention, the program will highlight, promote and fund creative solutions to pressing challenges facing Jewish life today, according to Cyd Weissman, Reconstructing Judaism’s assistant vice president for Innovation and Impact.

Earlier this year, Reconstructing Judaism issued a call for applications to participate in “Reconstructing Shark Tank.” The organization received seven applications. Three finalists have been selected and will pitch their ideas to a panel and live convention audience that will award grants of $3,000, $5,000 and $8,000. While the television show is known for its cutthroat nature and sharp elbows — entrepreneurs seeking funding are routinely dismissed in snarky tones — “Reconstructing Shark Tank” will be imbued with a sense of hesed, lovingkindness.

The program will be moderated by Rabbi George Wielechowski, RRC ’15, a Reconstructing Judaism board member and founding director of the Open Dor Project, an organization that, according to its website, “helps give spiritual startup leaders the resources they need to succeed.”

Weissman explained that common themes of the projects include seeking new ways to strengthen connections to community, engaging under-engaged populations and rethinking the use of space in communal life. Needless to say, choosing finalists was a subjective process, and some worthy proposals did not make the cut. Those communities that will not receive “Shark Tank” funding are seeking alternative sources of support for their proposals.

“In different ways, each project is about building relationships grounded in purpose,” said Weissman, adding that the products reflected various design principles associated with effective social entrepreneurship.

During the pitches, Weissman expects the panel to address the design principles underpinning the projects and assess whether the communities have left room to pivot to alternative strategies if their projects don’t go as expected.

For the benefit of affiliates and the larger faith world, what follows are synopses of the seven applications. The proposals offer a cross-section of new ideas being planned throughout Jewish communities. As an editorial note, everything in direct quotes comes verbatim from the application documents. The synopses are presented in alphabetical order.

 


 

Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md., is seeking to shift the conversation from the needs of the institution to the needs of the people served. The project is hyper-focused on serving those households that are most likely to disengage from the synagogue, including those whose youngest child has just celebrated a b’nai mitzvot, or whose parents are about to become empty-nesters.

The project entails training a team of volunteer engagement counselors who will work with at least 50 families in the pilot year. “As information is gathered, engagement counselors, and support staff, will be tasked with attempting to synthesize the information and then assist families to meet the identified goals. This may be accomplished via reshaping of the congregation’s own offerings, referrals to other agencies and programs that may meet these needs, etc.”

Through the project, the congregation will develop an assessment tool to gage a family’s level of Jewish knowledge and engagement, empowering the volunteer to work with the family to craft “goals for Jewish living” for the year ahead.

Member retention and under-engagement are perennial challenges faced by nearly all congregations. This project, and its potential to inspire similar efforts, imbues interest and relevance for communities across the ideological spectrum.

This proposal was selected as a “Reconstructing Shark Tank” finalist.

 

Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta is seeking to serve unaffiliated Jews, especially those unlikely to join a congregation. This project is based on two stirring declarations. First, no matter how much a community can lower the barrier to entry, some people may never join. Second, it is the community’s responsibility to serve those who decline to affiliate. “We have come to believe that holding up membership as the only ‘access card’ to the deeply relevant personal clergy services we offer is no longer the right thing do. The congregation is exploring how it can offer access to clergy without impacting the level of service available to members.”

This investigation of an alternative rabbinic (and membership) model is relevant to Jewish communities across North America.

Bet Haverim seeks to hire a second rabbi whose portfolio will “be split between the needs of our members and serving unaffiliated individuals on a fee-for-service model.” Doing so will enable the congregation “to meet the growing needs of our members while addressing growing needs in the broader community.”

This proposal was selected as a “Reconstructing Shark Tank” finalist.

 

Havurah Shalom, in Portland, Ore., seeks to break down the walls that often make communal subpopulations—families with young children, retirees, singles—feel as if they are living in silos. At the same time, the community seeks to shrink the metaphorical and physical distance between members and recreate the feel of a Jewish neighborhood, something that’s been lost as Jewish families live farther and farther from centers of community.

The Havurah Next Door program will connect families that live near one another, cutting across age and congregational subgroups. The idea is to develop a system for families to connect over Shabbat dinners and holiday meals, while encouraging families by offering support “when someone is sick, recovering from surgery, in need of transportation to Havurah or another location where an activity is occurring, etc.”

An operating principle of the project is that people and families don’t build strong connections with one other through one activity, but through repeated and varied interactions. “Hopefully what will occur is ongoing connections with other Havurah members that folks would not have made through other activities and long-lasting relationships will be created.”

 

Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. is taking a close look at its own membership and seeking opportunities to bolster the experience of those who may be under-engaged. JRC’s proposal includes a multi-faceted approach to engaging different populations, including working adults, the elderly and teens.

According to the proposal, JRC is engaged in conversation with the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York and Bnai Keshet, in Montclair, N.J., to create an annual teen social-justice travel program. “Our core concept is that every year, teens from multiple Reconstructionist congregations, with multiple Reconstructionist educators and rabbis, would travel together to a different city to explore a different aspect of social justice in the United States. This program is one way to fill the gap that currently exists in our movement in which there is no coordinated national teen program.”

 

Kehillat Mevakshei Derech is a Reconstructionist-inspired community founded in Jerusalem in 1962. The community seeks to address the fractured natured of the city and bring together communities that may be close geographically but have little interaction. These populations include Modern Orthodox, working-class Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent, Palestinian Arabs and immigrants from Ethiopia. “Through sharing celebrations, we can offer each community the opportunity to see the best of the communities which surround them and allow individuals within each community to build bonds of meaning with members of other communities.”

Kehilat Mevakshei Derech is seeking to bring families together from adjoining but disconnected communities to celebrate one another’s public festivals. The proposed program would bring groups together to celebrate three public festivals: Sigd, an Ethiopian Jewish festival now recognized as an official Israeli holiday; Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday held after Passover’s conclusion; and Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival that marks the close of Ramadan. Community representatives would work together to plan the festivals and build relationships.

This proposal was selected as a “Reconstructing Shark Tank” finalist.

 

Oseh Shalom in Laurel, Md., is seeking to offer more compelling religious and educational experiences to its school-age population and membership at large. This project revolves around ideas of reframing communal space and using the natural world as a focus point for Jewish experience.

The congregation’s proposal calls for creating an outdoor classroom and ritual space that would enable students to “experience and live” Jewish values. The structure would be set up in the congregation’s refurbished biblical garden, stimulating “creativity through various modalities (music, art, poetry). Student participation with the land will foster an intrinsic bond that then has them seeing all aspects of the natural world as a necessary and indiscernible part of their Jewish identity.”

 

Congregation T’chiyah & Detroit Jews for Justice, two Detroit-based Reconstructionist affiliates with a history of collaboration, are seeking to use alternative, culturally based holiday programs to deepen members’ engagement with the community and the Jewish calendar. The proposed program, called “The Whole Megillah,” is meant to utilize artists, musicians and scholars to create a series of holiday experiences that connect both to Judaism and social-justice issues that are pertinent in Detroit.

“Our transformative arts and culture holiday programs provide a loving experience with Jewish tradition and an unparalleled community-building opportunity. Programs connect CT (Congregation T’chiyah) and DJJ (Detroit Jews for Justice) by forging authentic relationships across generations through the planning process and by breaking bread at the events themselves.”

Assistant Director of Media and Development Communications, Reconstructing Judaism