I posted about the Jewish Futures Competition a few weeks ago. It asks how Jewish life, living and learning will change as we move to a society in which individuals are not only consumers of information and culture, but also producers of their own and others’ experiences. I think the question has it wrong. There never was such a divide between Jewish consumers and producers.
If you tried to picture the upbringing of a Jewish producer, it wouldn’t be mine. My formal Jewish education consisted of synagogue supplemental school, one year of Jewish Summer camp, and one college class. I have been an active participant in Jewish programming wherever I’ve lived. Does this make me a Jewish consumer?
I was elected to a synagogue board of directors at the age of 26. How did someone in the famously non-joining age group get on a synagogue board? They asked me to serve, and I said yes. When I moved to a new city, I helped start parent-led Shabbat services for preschoolers in my new synagogue, using the approach, designed by my previous community. Now that I have a child entering kindergarten, I’ve been working with several other families and Jewish professionals to organize a 4-5 day per week Jewish afterschool program that will provide robust Jewish learning (mixed in with a lot of play time) during hours when many children are already in supervised afterschool programs. More than fifty families in our community have already expressed interest in this program.
So when did I switch from a consumer to a producer? The answer is the same as it has always been. A Jewish consumer is someone who hasn’t (yet) found the motivation and outlet to produce. If you chose to be involved in a Jewish community you are a producer. You don’t need any title or degree to lead prayer. The lifeblood of Jewish organizations from Federations to minimally structured minyanim are the volunteers who step forward to inspire and organize.
So, what inspired the original question? Most Jewish producers have been hyper-local. Our synagogue walls are filled with plaques honoring our predecessors, whose devotion, ideas, and energy created these communities. Sadly, few people outside their own communities would recognize these names. Technology is shrinking the barriers that kept local voices local and expanding the types of communities that are possible. A good idea, adapted by one community, can spread well beyond the word of mouth of the members of that community. What looks like more consumers becoming producers is really local producers starting to grasp the possibilities of a larger network.
So, take my collaborators’ efforts to create an aftercare program as an example. We’ve identified and compiled detailed information from similar established and emerging programs across the country in just a few months. We’ve gotten advice from Jewish educators working across the country and down the block. People I’ve never met are writing to me offering to help or asking about potential jobs.
Personally, I’ve gone from the biography above to a commentator and published author on Jewish institutions and education in half a year.
Even though individuals can do more, institutions still matter. To launch our aftercare program, we’re collaborating with three local synagogues who have offered classroom space and we’re trying to collaborate with others. People inside and outside the professional Jewish world have given us their time and money. Our local Partnership for Jewish Life & Learning is giving us advice and a small grant for our preparatory year. Programs like ours can’t succeed in a vaccuum.
What does this mean for the future? The increasing number of voices bringing innovation to national Jewish living and learning is a good thing. Good ideas don’t all need to come from our Federations, academic programs, and other Jewish institutions, but our institutions will need to adapt. They must figure out where centeralized support is needed and where networks of local producers can do things better and cheaper on their own. This will require the broader Jewish community to significantly re-evaluate the ways we distribute and share resources and to better understand the technology tools that are strengthening our producers. I can’t tell you the best way to do all this, but I look forward to being part of what happens next.