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PresenTenseLA 2014: Reshaping CommUNITY

This post is a part of a series highlighting the social entrepreneurial ventures that each of the 2014 PresenTenseLA Fellows will be unveiling at Launch Night on May 21st. The Fellows were given the prompt “What’s so Jewish about your project?” and over the course of the series we will be sharing their answers and exploring the very nature of Jewish change-making. Today we are highlighting PTLA Fellows Jonathan Bubis and Zalman Kravitz, who each have visions for creating stronger Jewish communities – one through more moving and participatory prayer and one through more collaborative networks of social investment.

What’s So Jewish about Tefilah Transformed Initiative?

How can a venture about bringing musical, uplifting, participatory prayer to synagogues be Jewish? Alright, fine. It’s Jewish. But how do the underlying values of Tefilah Transformed Initiative and its particular prayer model speak to the tradition? Inviting Jews to pray and pray better is one thing. But prayer that is melody-laden and moving? Prayer that is inclusion-based? The Hebrew Bible recounts the tales of kings employing timbrels and lyres to enter into an altered state of consciousness. It speaks of prophets who utilize music to have the spirit of God rest upon them. From the Levites who offered their voice and their song in the Temple, to the Hasidim who developed niggunim (wordless melodies) to stir up their emotions, ours is a tradition that is familiar with the true power of music. Music, one Hasidic rabbi said, is the key to the soul. And coupled with the words of our liturgy, prayer is an ancient technology that links us to our ancestors and to our tribe, a communication system that syncs us to the Whole, to the One.

And it’s not just for kings, priests, and prophets. We all want to connect. The Torah records Moses gathering a group of seventy elders from the people of Israel in the Tent of Meeting in order to commune with God. After they’re through, two men dare to remain in the tent to have their own private moment. They linger with the divine presence, which appears to them in the form of a cloud, and the spirit rests upon them. Shocked by their chutzpah, others rush to Moses and tattle on the two men for so blatantly breaking protocol and challenging his authority. But instead of feeling threatened, Moses boldly replies: “If only all of God’s people were prophets, that God would put His spirit upon them!” Translation? God is not reserved for the elite. Access to an authentically Jewish spiritual outlet is not meant to be restricted for the few. We all should be given equal opportunity to engage in heartfelt prayer that binds us to something greater. It is only with the full community, our tradition tells us, when our prayers have the power to rise upward and shatter the heavens. This is why Tefilah Transformed Initiative seeks to move synagogue leadership off the bima and into the pews, spread knowledge of the liturgy beyond rabbis and cantors and into the minds and hearts of everyone. It empowers others to own their own communal prayer experience, and teaches them how to make it rock. Prayer that is musical and compelling, decentralized and dynamic: not only is it Jewish, but it harkens back to the root of Jewish prayer and spiritual connection.

~ Jonathan Bubis, PTLA Fellow 2014

What is so Jewish about The NonProfit Exchange?

One of the biggest challenges facing the nonprofit world is inefficiency in balancing programming and development resources. This challenge is amplified even more so for small nonprofit organizations, where employees are expected to wear multiple hats. One minute you are the program director; the next you are the development director. Without sufficient staff to fulfill these roles, organizations often get stuck in a modicum of success, able to raise enough funds to survive and provide basic services, but not enough to be change making. This vicious cycle limits their ability to thrive and and succeed.

Imagine a world in which small nonprofits don’t have to take the risk of hosting large fundraising events, where they can get exposure to new potential donors, and participate in an economy of scale. This may be an idealistic picture, but it could be real.

It is often said that the Jewish nonprofit world is very competitive. Why are we overly concerned that another organization is going to poach our donors? The Torah tells us to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiva explained that this is a major tenet in the Torah. Shouldn’t we apply this core principle to our fellow organizations?

To answer these questions, we first need to explore what motivates the nonprofit sector. Dan Pallotta, in the introduction to his book Uncharitable writes, ”It was the Puritans’ religious belief that human beings are evil, that we are obnoxious in the eyes of God, and that the self is depraved. Logically, this meant that the self had to be negated. Charity became the monument to this belief, a compensation for human depravity.”

By contrast, Judaism believes that humans are good and we possess the potential for greatness. Charity, in the Jewish tradition, is about being righteous; it is about being a steward of the gifts that God has given us. We are empowered with the choice of what to do with these gifts. Do we accumulate wealth for ourselves, or do we do righteousness with it and hopefully make the world a better place? The Jewish tradition of giving has been the source of debate and discussion throughout the ages. You don’t have to look further than Maimonides’ “Eight Levels of Charity”: from the lowest level – a person who gives charity unwittingly – to the greatest level “above which there is no greater… to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.”

These core Jewish values need to be brought into the Jewish nonprofit sector. We need to embrace collaboration and help each other become more self-sustaining. We are on the cusp of tremendous and exciting innovations in philanthropy. These new trends will change the way we look at funding our organizations.

We must embrace innovations such as “impact investment”, bringing funds from the for-profit portfolios into the the world of social good; social entrepreneurs creating models of sustainable and profitable ventures that make a difference in our communities; and finally, though it may sound like a gimmick, nonprofit IPOs that give investors shares in the good that an organization produces. If we as a community can join together and not only explore, but also help each other to test and model these exciting new tools, we will be able to change the face of the Jewish nonprofit sector for the next generation.

As a 2014 PresenTenseLA social entrepreneurial fellow, I have become focused on these and other new trends and mindsets. The goal of my venture, the NonProfit Exchange, is to encourage Jewish small nonprofits to explore these innovative funding sources and help them create and facilitate collaborative fundraising events to pool their resources and leverage their reach to raise more funds. By collaborating and working together we all become stronger.

Join me in creating a collaborative fundraising ecosystem of team players to revolutionize the way we fund Jewish nonprofits in Los Angeles and the world beyond. Take part in the conversation today by using the twitter hashtag #CollabFund.

~ Zalman Kravitz, PTLA Fellow 2014

For more information on the fellows, their ventures, and the PresenTense LA Program, please visit here.

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