Build an Open Tent Instead of Guarding The Communal Gates

By Tobin Belzer, Amichai Lau-Lavie and Ronit Avni

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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A few months ago, Joshua Venture quietly closed down. We are proud that during its four-plus years of existence, our fellowship of Jewish social entrepreneurs piqued the interest of hundreds of unaffiliated young adults who had felt alienated by increasingly conservative and creatively stagnant Jewish institutions.

We are proud, but we are also worried. We fear that the closing of Joshua Venture may have a chilling effect on other aspiring entrepreneurs. We are concerned that Joshua Venture’s difficulty in obtaining financial support signifies a deeper resistance by major Jewish institutions to cultivating new ideas.

Joshua Venture was an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of leaders — this, at a time when the vast majority of young Jews in their 20s and 30s have no Jewish communal affiliations whatsoever. We fellows were fortunate to have been offered the opportunity by Joshua Venture to join the small minority of young Jewish entrepreneurs and visionaries who are actively cultivating Jewish identities and contributing to a Jewish future.

Despite its end, an independent evaluation showed strong expressions of the organization’s programmatic success since its founding in 1999. Through direct service, workshops, broadcasts, publications and performances, Joshua Venture reached more than 700,000 people and capitalized more than $3,000,000 for a Jewish renaissance in North America.

What’s more, Joshua Venture was instrumental in injecting a breath of fresh ideas into the American Jewish community.

It launched Heeb Magazine: The New Jew Review and the nonprofit record and event production company JDub Records, both of which have evolved into cultural standard bearers and community conveners for 20-something Jews who seek to fuse their creative and ethno-religious identities. It supported creative and educational efforts such as JustVision, which uses cutting-edge video and Internet technology to connect interested audiences with Israelis and Palestinians building peace in the Middle East. It backed intellectual endeavors such as The Storahtelling Project and the forthcoming book “Jewish Identity at Work.” And Joshua Venture placed equality and access at the forefront by supporting organizations that worked for the inclusion of people of color, people with disabilities, Jews by choice, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews.

But Joshua Venture is no more. It closed for a variety of reasons, including problems with infrastructure and an inability to raise adequate funding. Joshua Venture’s closing underscores the dynamics of generational change that continue to stymie growth in the American Jewish community.

It is an age-old problem, one that is reflected in the story of Joshua Venture’s biblical namesake. Joshua was the young heir to the leadership of a people on a journey to a promised land. Groomed for his new role by Moses, Joshua began the precarious transmission of tradition, wisdom and leadership from one generation to the next.

While the biblical narrative depicts a smooth transition of power between Moses and Joshua, rabbinic legend offers a number of differing interpretations. In one telling, Moses graciously understands that a different leadership style, a re-imagining of myths and a new journey were required for the next generation to thrive. Alternatively, Moses is depicted in some rabbinic texts as a leader who is suspicious of Joshua’s intentions, bitter that he will be deprived of reaching the promised land and reluctant to hand over the reins.

Like the biblical Joshua, young leaders today encounter reluctance even from those most concerned about Jewish continuity. Yet we have also been blessed with an abundance of support. As with Moses, conflicting responses are understandable, since the very nature of young leaders’ creative contribution includes an implicit criticism of what currently exists.

If we are to learn anything from the story of Joshua, it is the recognition that any emerging agents of change must receive widespread communal support to succeed. Perhaps the very paradigm set up by Moses and Joshua is not the best approach for encouraging leadership.

Rather than the current old guard’s practice of guarding the communal gates, perhaps the Abrahamic tradition of maintaining an open tent — of accepting and nourishing that which is unfamiliar — is a more compelling, ethical and refreshing strategy for engaging young leaders. Our challenge to ourselves and to the community is to support the innovators in our midst, no matter how young or unconventional, and to make sure they are welcomed.

Tobin Belzer, Amichai Lau-Lavie and Ronit Avni are former fellows of Joshua Venture.

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