The Canary in the Coal Mine, Or, Will History Repeat Itself?

From President & CEO Elise Bernhardt:

I came to the Jewish world five years ago, when JDub was the big cultural kid on the block and the Six Points Fellowship was starting with close to a million dollars in support for emerging artists.  The Foundation (then NFJC) was struggling for its existence and the Jewish world seemed a place that was all about embracing the innovations of the young.  It saddens me that in this short time, when countless studies have shown the power of Jewish culture to engage young people, that JDub is closing its doors. This is a failure of the Jewish philanthropic system.

Last week I saw Joe Dorman’s excellent documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.  It took Joe almost 10 years to finish the film (which we helped fund) but the timing of its release couldn’t be more appropriate.  I learned that Sholem Aleichem died almost a pauper but had the largest funeral New York has ever seen.   We may not have had the means one hundred years ago to address that irony, but now we do: the tragedy of JDub is that with the power and means of the Jewish community today, their demise was preventable.What is it about the Jews and their culture? Why did the Medicis get it but we don’t? Supporting creativity and innovation in the cultural sector is not the same as business in the corporate sense.  Culture should not just be subject to the vagaries of the marketplace.  Sometimes cultivating important ideas simply requires philanthropy at its best.  Select people who you think have something important and new to say (and do) and support them through the trajectory of their careers. It doesn’t mean fully funding them or everything they do.  It means understanding that the cycles of creative growth and success aren’t always monetized or measurable in the same way as manufacturing.  It means acknowledging that to continue to move forward and align one’s mission with the ever changing world,  an organization in the business of culture needs overhead (capital, just as in the corporate world), and that translates to project AND operating support.  As the secular foundations of the world have long acknowledged, this is key to the health of any and every ecosystem.

On the other hand while it is important to invest in start-ups, not every idea should become a non-profit.  Managing a non-profit is no picnic – the costs of doing business and the expertise required to file all the paperwork now required for “due diligence” is way beyond the scope of what most innovators want or need to become involved with.  The Jewish world seems to have created quite an infrastructure for “incubating,” but how much thought has it given (or support has it put aside) to sustaining start-ups through adolescence, mid-life and beyond?  It is time to think about the message to young people when churning out start-ups is all the rage and the life expectancy of these new organizations is potentially so short.  Cultural innovation is NOT Silicon Valley; scalability of culture is not the same as it is for machines.

Aaron Bisman is as smart and passionate a fellow as we can find and JDub has been a tremendous success.  However, its mission is not complete.  Without JDub’s expertise and devotion, what happens to the musicians they were supporting, the concerts they were presenting, and the connections to young Jews they have forged in real and cyberspace?

The Foundation for Jewish Culture has been bringing together cultural leaders and thinkers over the last four months to think about “the next big thing” in Jewish culture. Someone asked us, “What’s the emergency?” Perhaps we have it here: is the Jewish community willing to make quality Jewish Culture sustainable? I welcome the conversation.

Elise Bernhardt

President & CEO

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