Pro-Sumers: New Rules For The Jewish Future
This week I was at the Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly in Denver. Embedded in the event was The Jewish Futures Conference, which featured the work of several exceptional leaders in the Jewish community, as well as creative ideas submitted to the organizers, and teens sharing their ideas and projects. The following are my remarks, which opened the afternoon to set the context for presenters such as Chris Lehmann and Tiffany Shlain. Every GA registrant was given a copy of Elie Kaunfer's book Empowered Judaism, and since I'm interested in you thoughts, and I have 3 copies of the book (I lend it out regularly, and bought copies for my own synagogue's leadership), I'll happily pass on the fresh copy I got this week to one person who shares your thoughts on being a pro-sumer, the Jewish future, or take-aways from the GA. Be a pro-sumer in the comments!
Jewish Futures: Lisa Colton
I'm here to tell you that the rules of the game have changed. I wish I had a nice, neat little book to hand you that would make everything clear, but it doesn’t exist yet. I will, however, spend the next few minutes sharing what I’d write on the back cover if it existed. At last year’s Futures Conference we began exploring some of the new rules – like how content should be open, remixable, meaningful and relevant, and community building. Today, you’ll learn a few more. You probably have others which you can contribute with the microphone in your hand (the twitter hashtag is #Jewishfutures), or add in our online discussions after our event today. You’re a prosumer too. Together, we’re writing the future of the Jewish people.
Today, fundamental shifts in society, behavior and technology mean we must question some of the most basic assumptions that have driven our field, and our organizations, for the last several decades. Over the last 50 years we’ve actually seen an “outsourcing” of Jewish education to the professionals in institutions, and the focus on organizations that program the Jewish calendar to fulfill the demand of a “consumerist Judaism” culture. Looking back, we can see that this is actually an aberration from Jewish life throughout history, where “outsourcing” might have meant going to someone else’s house for Shabbas dinner.
Today we’re talking about pro-sumers and our emerging ‘pro-sumerist’ culture. A funny word, perhaps, but a very powerful concept that I think is actually great news for Jewish life and learning. Isn’t this really what most Jewish educators dream of? That their students will grab the reigns and take an active role in learning, creating, and furthering their own (and their family’s and their community’s) Jewish life? The rules of the game may feel foreign, and in fact may feel threatening to those of us who were raised, trained, and have developed our careers based on a different rule book. But as we challenge ourselves today, I want to acknowledge that these changes – if we can understand them and adapt to work in alignment with them – are good news.
Individual empowerment, the democratization of information, and the ease of collaboration are defining our current era. These three characteristics of today’s culture have profound implications for how build and sustain organizations, how we use our professional expertise, and how we empower the people within our networks and communities to achieve our Jewish communal goals.
While this cultural revolution may be strongly influenced by advances in technology, but it’s not actually about technology – it’s about what technology has made possible. Clay Shirky, in his wonderful book Here Comes Everybody, asserts that the age of social media means that organizations no longer have a monopoly on organizing.” What he means is that individuals can now very easily and powerfully coordinate and collaborate with less infrastructure than was previously needed to accomplish those goals. The uprisings in the middle east and the Occupy Wall Street protests are just two obvious examples of this. But such bottom-up collaboration and organization also manifests in education and the Jewish community. Let’s look at two examples.
First, the Khan Academy. If you don’t know about it, its founder -- who studied electrical engineering at MIT and got his MBA from Harvard -- started tutoring some family members by creating short videos to explain topics they were struggling with at school. The Khan Academy now has over 2500 ‘micro-lectures’ on topics such as math, history, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics and computer science. The impact of this discovery is that Khan has basically flipped classroom and homework time so students can watch the lectures or demonstrations at home, and then do the ‘homework’ in class, sometimes collaboratively, with the teacher available for assistance anytime. Both Google and the Gates Foundation have made significant investments in the Kahn Academy, and it’s been featured in a TED talk earlier this year. The Khan Academy is democratizing education through its mission of providing a free world-class education to anyone, anywhere. If you’re interested in learning more about the concept, check out the Twitter hashtag #JEDchat, where last Wednesday night a group of Jewish educators shared their efforts at “flipping classrooms” and discussed the potential impact for Jewish education. (More on that chat here).
Another example is the surge of Independent Minyanim that have sprung up in so many communities over the last several years. The Indie Minyanim really illustrate those three characteristics I mentioned a moment ago: Individual empowerment, the democratization of information, and the ease of collaboration. These individuals are willing to work hard and invest a lot of themselves to have the opportunity to be pro-Sumers. They do not want to be passive consumers or participants. I highly recommend reading Elie Kaunfer’s book, Empowered Judaism, which is included in every GA registrants’ bag. The book gives powerful insights into this generation and mindset, which are relevant far beyond minyanim.
While the popularity of Indie Minyanim is not limited to young people, it does point to the importance of recognizing the different characteristics of the generations. While Gen Xers were a hint of what was to come (entrepreneurship, for example, as a way to “producing” our own – I fall into that category), the Millennials and the generations that come after will be even more different. Millienials seek meaning (in their jobs, and beyond), want to feel empowered and trusted, and are really good at collaboration. And they are willing to work for it. After you read Elie’s book, go study up on Millennials. It will make you a better parent, grandparent, teacher, employer and friend, and will clue you in on how to lead your organization and our community to be successful in The Jewish Future.
So, if it hasn’t already been clear, the message here is that the times, they are a’ changing. In really fundamental ways, and quickly. And while the pace of change may be exhausting and relentless, I’m here to tell you that for the rest of our careers, perhaps even the rest of our lives, this rate of change is going to be the name of the game. You’re gonna have to get use to it. Thankfully, we’ve got a lineup today that’s here to help.
Now that we recognize things change, change often, and aren’t always predictable, we are learning to be more nimble. Perhaps Tech companies did this first, but many have also adopted the idea of the “Permanent Beta”. We used to spend lots of time, effort and often money perfecting something and then release it to the world. In a Permanent Beta you release the Beta version – something well cooked but not set in stone, and then constantly refine it with your users. You listen, get feedback, adjust, listen some more, and continuously evolve. Whereas we used to be focused on the destination, we now embrace that it’s all about the journey.
I liken this to the idea of Na’ase V’nishmah – a fascinating concept for our current age that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, inspired by my colleague Miriam Brosseau. This comes from the biblical verse where the Jews are standing at Mount Sinai express their acceptance of the Torah with the words "na'aseh v'nishma”, which is roughly translated and understood “First we will DO, and then we will UNDERSTAND”. I think this phrase perfectly encapsulates a “Jewish-Permenant-Beta” mindset. I encourage you to think about how Naase v’Nishmah can be a guide for you to step into this new age, experiment, learn, and refine. Because we won’t get to the future by thinking about it. We have to DO it.
It has been said about the late Steve Jobs that while he invented gadgets, his real impact was that he changed society. Pro-sumers similarly are moving Jewish learning and knowledge and empowerment into the communal space, not only limited only to the professionals and “traditional” methods of delivery that many of us are used to. Pro-sumerists are opening up new worlds that we can’t yet even imagine. And as communal leaders we stand at a very important cross roads where we can see these new paths as a threat to what we know and have built, or as the key to achieving our shared goals in an era governed by a different rule book.
To help understand this crossroads, I’ll leave you with an analogy which I hope will rattle around in your head for a while. It’s inspired by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s work on Networked Nonprofits, from a book of the same name.
Beth and Allison talk about three stages of evolution of organizations, moving from a fortress to a focus on transactions, to greater transparency and the embrace of networks. The old model is like a fortress – there are insiders and there are outsiders. There is a bold distinction between the producers (royalty) and consumers (commoners). They are divided, and the structures of society are designed to reinforce that division. In the Jewish community, we may find that our language, policies, program structures and behaviors make up these fortress walls. For some, Hebrew might be this barrier. For others, the concept of synagogue “membership” might be another fortress wall. Regardless of what you think about Hebrew fluency and Synagogue membership, the Fortress model does not work with pro-sumers. Period.
On the other end of the spectrum is a model more like a sea sponge that is sustained by its interactions with the organisms and environment around it. It survives, and thrives based on the flow of water in and out the pores and center tube of the sponge. It’s open to the community, so to speak, in nearly every way, and lives in symbiosis with other organisms. This is the model where pro-sumers thrive. Where they can make a positive contribution, where the “host organism” wants and values their participation. Where information and intentions are transparent, where those who are interested in producing, can.
For example, while my synagogue has a very successful preschool program, a few mothers of infants wanted to gather, socialize, learn and build community before their kids were two and a half. They mentioned it to the synagogue leadership, who empowered them to “go for it” and are available to support and market and provide space to make it happen.
Because we count you all as very hip and thriving pro-sumers too, we invite you to add your voice to the conversation. I want to float a few questions for you to think about as we move through this event – you can engage on Twitter (both talking and listening) using the #JewishFutures hashtag today and share your thoughts in a longer format on the Discussion Forums at JewishEdChange.net. I’ve kicked off one discussion topic there, but feel free to start new ones. You are, of course, PRO-sumers!
Now remember, there's a copy of Empowered Judaism up for grabs -- share your thoughts, ideas and questions in the comments to have a chance at snagging it. Just as important as producing is listening -- we really do want to hear what you have to say.
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Richard D Solomon, PhD