Winter is not my favorite season of the year. Having lived in Minnesota for seven years a few decades ago, I feel that I’ve seen enough snow and experienced enough cold to last a lifetime. Nonetheless, winter has its uses, one of which is to provide a period of dormancy during which plants and animals can prepare themselves for the bursts of new activity that come with the spring.
For us at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, winter also is an opportunity for gathering our energies and preparing for a flurry of new grantmaking and initiatives that we plan to launch in the coming months. We’ve just completed a thorough strategic review and program planning and budgeting process that has set our priorities for 2016. We’re enthused about two major new projects that we will be announcing in the next few weeks. But, beyond the specific activities we’ll be undertaking, we’ve also set a strategic goal for our work that is ambitious and somewhat daunting: we want to help build a movement for applying Jewish wisdom that will cut across boundaries of sector, setting, and ideology and connect the many organizations and individuals who are using Jewish teaching, practice, and community to inspire and enable people to live better lives and shape a better world.
We don’t use the term “movement” lightly. In fact we debated long and hard whether the term is appropriate and useful to describe what we envision. Looking at the vast literature on movements as well as our experience of social movements today and in the recent past, we identified four characteristics that seemed to us to fit with what is beginning to happen and is worth nurturing in Jewish life today:
- Mobilization at the grass-roots
- Collective action with a common frame (shared vocabulary and concepts)
- A sense of collective identity
- A long-term vision for change
As we look synoptically across many arenas of Jewish activity today, from formal Jewish education to Jewishly-inspired social change efforts, we see these four elements becoming increasingly visible. In settings as diverse as day school classrooms, family bedrooms, Shabbat tables, and urban farms, we see growing numbers of Jews (and their partners) engaging with Jewish ideas, stories, and practices as real sources of enrichment and meaning for their lives. We see an expanding cadre of organizations and educators creating a broad array of experiences that make that connection between Jewish teaching and daily life more tangible. We see networks of individuals with shared passions and visions emerging both within and across sectors of activity, recognizing one another as allies in a larger endeavor and seeking ways to collaborate more effectively.
We see these as hallmarks of a nascent movement, one that is not yet fully articulate, organized, or self-aware – but one that is heading in this direction. Already, these early intuitions have taken us beyond the era of “Jewish continuity” into a new period when the focus in Jewish life is increasingly on Jewishness and Jewish wisdom as powerful vehicles for promoting human flourishing, for responding to the universal desires for meaning, connection, and efficacy, for guiding us in our efforts to create a more just society in a sustainable world. We believe, therefore, that strengthening these independent efforts into a full-fledged movement is a strategic opportunity and responsibility for our foundation.
We do not imagine that we can do this by ourselves or that our actions can be decisive in shaping the future course of events. The literature and experience tell us that building movements takes time and that it is messy. But, we have learned as well that there are actions that we can take as a funder that can support the movement that is emerging. These range from working with others to develop framing language for the movement that is both descriptive and evocative, to convening gatherings where movement members and prospective members (especially across “sub-movement” boundaries) can meet and seek common ground, to making grants that enable organizations to undertake activities that help build their effectiveness within a movement context, to participating in collaborative funding that helps movement organizations achieve greater scale and impact and that helps build a movement infrastructure.
Looking around in winter, it’s easy to see what appears to be a barren landscape, just as it’s easy to read some of the statistical portraits of Jewish life in America and see only decline and decay. But, in both cases, that’s a false (or at best, incomplete) picture of what is occurring. In the end, whether we call what is happening in Jewish life today the emergence of a movement is less important than recognizing the positive momentum that undeniably exists. Our goal for 2016 is to help accelerate that momentum, and we’re excited to have the opportunity to do so.