Memo to Michael Steinhardt: ‘Duh.’

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published October 17, 2007, issue of October 19, 2007.
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This past summer, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt rocked the Jewish institutional world when he announced that he sort of regretted the $125 million he had spent on Jewish causes. “Is the Jewish world any better today than it was 13 years ago? Have things really improved? Are we reaching more people?” Steinhardt asked. “I don’t have positive answers. Outside of our self-congratulatory bubbles, things haven’t changed much.”

In Jewish circles, responses have ranged from worried consternation to defensive self-congratulation. Yet for those of us who have been toiling in the “New Jewish Culture” for the past decade or so, the response can only be “Duh.”

“Duh,” because with only a few notable exceptions (Birthright Israel being the largest and best known) Steinhardt’s well-intentioned millions were lavished on the same tried-and-true institutions that caused young Jews to become unaffiliated in the first place. Not surprisingly, since Steinhardt came out of the hedge fund world, where prudence and risk evaluation are the cardinal virtues. Perhaps a better preparation for Jewish philanthropy, however, would have been venture capital, in which many investments are expected to fail so that a few will succeed. Based on my dual experience as a Jewish cultural entrepreneur and as a venture-funded software entrepreneur, I thought of a few lessons a VC might share, as Steinhardt refocuses his efforts to become more effective in his generosity (which, after all, has set the gold standard in the Jewish community):

1) Innovation does not come from the mainstream — Seems obvious, but in funding large, religiously minded organizations staffed by rabbis, Steinhardt poured more money down the same drain that led to Jewish alienation to begin with. Why not look outside the institutional world, beyond its large offices and titled consultants, at places where “unaffiliated” Jews are creating their own Jewish culture, with nary two shekels to rub together? If he looks, Steinhardt will find hundreds of small, under-funded, independent Jewish organizations, high on enthusiasm but low on infrastructure, expertise and cash. Independent minyanim, new yeshivas, new magazines and cultural institutions, organizations that work with marginalized communities (sexual, religious, political, whatever) — the Jewish renaissance is happening; it’s just not happening in large rooms with pews. Of course, merely throwing money at inexperienced 20-somethings won’t work. But smart investing in existing independent culture goes where the action is, rather than trying to focus-group, simulate and package more of the lame.

2) Give organizations a chance to fail — This is a cardinal rule in venture capital: To have one success, you need to invest in five failures, because you can’t know which is which until you give all six the opportunity to fly or fall. Suppose a Jewish Cultural Initiative funds five of the not-for-profit Jewish magazines (or prayer groups, or educational initiatives) started in the past decade by young Jewish entrepreneurs. Chances are, at least two of them will fail, but only by investing widely will the one winner truly get its chance to shine. If all are expected to show quick results from small, incremental and uncertain grants, none will make it at all. Relatedly…

3) Invest in leaders and infrastructure — Of the young Jewish entrepreneurs I know, every single one of them devotes more time to development and infrastructure than to actual organization-building or, God forbid, teaching. Now, some of this is to be expected, and is certainly the case in the software business, as well. But there is at least one crucial difference: In the Jewish world, it’s well known that, outside a few lights in the wilderness, institutional funders won’t fund operating expenses and won’t pay for infrastructure. This is exactly backward. As in the venture capital world, infrastructure is precisely what funders should pay for, because it’s what we cultural creatives lack. Give us money, light and a room of our own, and some of us will succeed.

4) Believe in culture — Steinhardt, an atheist, has spent a decade funding synagogues and religious institutions — and now he complains that they aren’t reaching atheists like him. Why is this a surprise? What’s needed is a belief in culture: artists, arts organizations, magazines, independent publishing, cultural education. These are projects that will, over time, create a Jewishness worth affiliating with even if you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah. Of course, it takes time for this to happen; you can’t measure the effects on evaluation forms, and some cultural products will, of necessity, be of interest to only an elite. But then, we all understand that when it comes to the Met and the ballet, investments in culture are long term, and often work in a trickle-down way. Why expect instant results, and mass appeal, when it comes to Jewish life? And one more thing: culture succeeds when it’s allowed to flourish for its own sake, not as a tool to get Jewish couples to mate. Let’s stop demeaning ourselves, and undermining our own cultural efforts, by forcing Jewish culture to pimp for Jewish continuity. Nobody’s being fooled anyway.

5) It’s the product, not the marketing — Finally, let’s please quit packaging Judaism like the latest boy band. The trouble isn’t that Judaism isn’t branded well enough; it’s that the product — often, old-time religion with a healthy dose of tribalism and guilt — needs work. Once again, there’s no need to think-tank our way to success; just let the entrepreneurs innovate, and then give them the money, advice and infrastructure they need to grow. But don’t expect that the result will be the Blue and White Judaism of falafel and Anne Frank; those dogs don’t hunt anymore, and yesterday’s taboos (yes, even the one against criticizing Israel) are not operative for the “unaffiliated” Jews whom Steinhardt seeks to reach. So, stop cheerleading for the losing team. Allow the deep questions to be asked — Why should we be Jewish, anyway? — and be prepared for the unexpected.

No think-tank of white, straight men over 50 is going to create a Jewishness for smart, diverse, often multi-faith young people who shape their lives in the age of the iPod. What’s working around the country — in large synagogues and at indie music festivals, on blogs and in pluralistic schools — is the “open source” model of empowering young people to create Jewish institutions and communities on their own. It’s not clear that Steinhardt’s newly narrowed focus will leverage the remarkable strengths of this model, but he’d get a better return on investment if it did.

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