What’s The Big Idea?
02/06/08
Staff Writer
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The next big idea in Jewish life will have a foreword, table of contents and bibliography. It may not have a budget or board of directors. A competition sponsored by Brandeis University for a new academic chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, which has led to discussions about the founding of a new initiative like birthright israel, has winnowed 231 applicants down to five finalists. But their proposals focus on the ways Jews think, not necessarily on a new program or institution that the Jewish community will develop. The winner, who will be chosen after an all-day symposium Feb. 24 on the Brandeis campus, will work at the school for two years beginning in September, teaching one course each semester, delivering periodic lectures and primarily writing a book on his or her idea. Brandeis University Press will publish the book. “We’re not looking for the next birthright. We’re looking at a way of thinking,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis and chair of the university’s Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, which administers the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation. The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation is funding the two-year professorship. The five finalists, whose names were announced last week, submitted proposals that emphasize a change in the way Jews look at themselves, at Jewish tradition and at their relationship to the outside world. All five individuals have already reached positions of prominence in the Jewish community. “A very interesting mix of people” from around the world entered the competition, Sarna says. “What astonished me was that 231 people took the time to write an essay on how you transform Jewish life.” The finalists and the titles of their proposals are: #  Ariel Beery, founder and publisher of PresenTense magazine, “Translating Judaism for the Post-Digital Age.” #  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder and executive director of the Jewish Values Network, “Bring Judaism to the Mainstream.” #  Anita Diamant, writer, “Minhag America.” #  Yehuda Kurtzer, doctoral candidate in Jewish studies at Harvard University, “The Sacred Task of Rebuilding Jewish Memory.” # Saul Singer, Jerusalem Post editorial page editor and columnist, “From Survival to Purpose.” Beery calls his proposal “an extension and a reflection” of work he does at PresenTense, including a consulting group and an institute for social entrepreneurs. Dividing his time between Israel and the U.S., he sees a similarity between the challenges of Jewish life “in the information age” and those posed by political sovereignty. “How does one define community in an age when communication is instant and not geographically based?” Rabbi Boteach’s proposal is an extension of his prior work in England and this country — bringing Jewish values and practices to wider society, for the sake of Jews and non-Jews. An extant Jewish perspective “perpetuates the lie that there is a Jewish community and a non-Jewish community,” he says. “The truth is that Jewish wisdom is for all people, that Jewish values are universal. We have to make Judaism mainstream.” The proposal of Diamant, best known for her novel “The Red Tent,” focuses on what she considers the unique accomplishments — such as the equality of women in organized Jewish life, the growing role of arts and culture, the increased value of advanced Jewish learning — in the American Jewish community. She says she seeks to document, to “articulate,” the importance of  “this chapter in Jewish history.”  Kurtzer’s proposal focuses on “a new paradigm” — the role that Jewish memory plays in the revitalization of Jewish life in contemporary America, particularly how “progressive” parts of the community draw on “traditional Jewish models” like prayer and textual study. “Jews are reclaiming the mantle of memory,” he says. “The Gemara [the main part of the Talmud] has never been more popular in the liberal [Jewish] world.” Singer, who made aliyah from the U.S. in 1994, proposes that Jews actively seek converts, to increase the size of the Jewish community and to stress Jews’ role as a “Light Unto the Nations.” Conversion was an accepted and successful part of Jewish life until Jews went into extended exile 2,000 years ago. “We have to realize we’re not in exile anymore,” he says. “Jews need to switch from survival to purpose.” The ideas of the finalists, Sarna says, reflect “a breadth and depth” of thinking. The proposals may eventually lead to changes in how the Jewish community conducts itself or spends its funds, he says. For example, birthright israel, which brings tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel annually and is credited with strengthening the participants’ Jewish identity, “came out of years of [academic] research between American Jews and Israel.” The Brandeis competition was inspired by a $10,000 prize that philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck, offered in 1929 for the best answer to “How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?” The winner was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, whose book “Judaism as a Civilization” became one of the most influential books in 20th-century American Jewish life.

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