Rabbis Without Borders & Disruptive Innovation

By Rabbi David

I am privileged to participate in Rabbis Without Borders, a project of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Life and Learning. Rabbis Without Borders is a group of select rabbis dedicated to innovation and national service, and we had our annual conference last week (February 1-3, 2015). Here’s my report.

We met outside Baltimore, at the wonderful Pearlstone Center for a three-day conference of “disruptive innovation” in Jewish life. I’m familiar with this idea from my life in government and policy. Regular innovation evolves an idea, group or cause in an incremental way, trying not to rock the boat.

Disruptive innovation, by contrast, tries to rock the boat – not so much that the boat sinks, but enough to radically change its course.

Jewish life needs disruptive innovation. Many synagogues and the people who come to them have become trapped in doing the same stuff, the same way and to the same effect (whether good or not). Continuity and tradition are important, but so too is change. Judaism is always about both. When we forget this salient fact of Jewish life – whether in comfort or complacency – our spirituality can become calcified or brittle. Whether we’re comfortable with disruptive innovation is partly about the story we tell about our spirituality: do we understand our spiritual life in synagogue to be more active (asking of us choices and engagement) or passive (something that happens to us when we come to synagogue)?

In our TBE language, Spirit flows when we prime the pump and allow the flow and becomes stagnant when we don’t. We know instinctively when a service touches our soul, when a class inspires our minds, when a community service project makes a difference. Usually what most touches and inspires us is not the usual but the unusual: it’s something that shakes us out of complacency, our routine ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. Disruptive innovation is about fostering that kind of culture, so that Jewish life can thrive inside and out.

6a00d8341c019953ef01bb07d5a01b970d-800wiWhat most struck me about the conference is how real Jewish luminaries repeatedly remarked that what Jewish life most needs is what TBE already has. We do spiritual direction. We embrace the disruptive innovation of ALEPH and Jewish Renewal. We live an ethic of deep ecumenism that profoundly honors and deeply absorbs the wisdom and practice of sister traditions. We innovate, experiment, engage and include. We don’t elevate our clergy. We have a deep ethic of never staying the same, always reaching forward and reaching inward. We dropped pretense a long time ago.

That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a lot. I did. But what I most come away with is the sense that we’re on the right track. If you have a “disruptive innovation” you’d like to see at TBE, please let me know. With blessings – Rabbi David

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