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New Guidebook Serves as a Road Map

Rachel Pomerance, JTA

Young Jews flocked recently to a narrow lounge on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where black-clad servers mixed tangerine cocktails and offered fried zucchini and pizza with figs. Welcome to the launch party for Slingshot, a guidebook to the 50 most innovative Jewish groups in North America, published by a division of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies that works with family foundations. The idea is the brainchild of young Jewish philanthropists who wanted to fuel innovation in the Jewish world. Slingshot, which is expected to be published annually, aims to showcase meaningful but often cash-strapped programs to philanthropists who can help fund them. The Lower East Side occupies a key place in the collective American consciousness as the urban mecca where hundreds of thousands of immigrants launched their American dreams in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

 

The project organizers referred to the area's past as they stressed the importance of revitalizing North American Jewry - a goal the 50 honored groups share. "These groups collectively represent the future of American Jewry," said Jeremy Burton, the director of strategic initiatives for the Jewish Fund for Justice, which fights poverty in the United States. "They are doing programs that speak to a younger audience, and they're not tied to just because we did it this way we continue to do it this way." After assembling recommendations from Jewish philanthropists, 25 foundation professionals who fund Jewish programs chose the final 50 groups based on their performance in innovation, impact, leadership and efficiency. The Slingshot project comes just months after the demise of a key grant maker for American Jewish innovation, Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs, which awarded two-year fellowships to young Jews pioneering pluralistic programs in the Jewish community After five years, the program, which had been partially funded by Steven Spielberg, closed in March due to a shortfall in funds.

 

There are other initiatives to jump-start creative programs in Jewish life. Natan, a network of young philanthropists, want to "transform the Jewish future by funding innovative solutions to address crucial questions in Jewish life," according to its Web site. Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, sponsored by the Jewish Education Service of North America, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella, and the Kaminer family, gives start-ups office space, professional support and access to established Jewish groups. Slingshot's supporters say backing the 50 groups is smart because these groups are already remaking the Jewish community. "This is the low-risk, high-reward investment," Jeffrey Solomon, the president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, told the crowd, a mixture of representatives from the 50 honoree groups and members of philanthropic foundations. The organization that garnered the most recommendations among the "innovative 50" is the American Jewish World Service. The group, which focuses on long-term economic projects in the developing world, has been at the forefront of aiding victims of the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. "Twenty years after its founding, AJWS stays innovative by adding fresh programs such as Alternative Spring Break trips to Central America for college-age and other young Jewish volunteers looking to define their Jewish identity in an international service context," the guidebook states.

 

According to the Slingshot preface, the challenges that American Jews face in 2005 stem from assimilation. Because Jews are not externally compelled to live Jewish lives, they must inspire each other internally to feel connected to the Jewish community. Many of the guidebook's picks are programs that blend Judaism with American culture and society, allowing participants to nurture each side of their American Jewish identities. For example, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, awards one-year fellowships to recent college graduates to work on urban-poverty issues in America. Over the course of the year, fellows work for social-welfare organizations, gather for study sessions that combine Jewish learning and social-activism training, and live in a house with seven to 10 others, where they celebrate Shabbat. Another featured group is Kehilat Hadar, a traditional, egalitarian minyan on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Led by volunteers, the independent minyan has become a hot spot for Jews in their 20s and 30s, drawing crowds to biweekly services, regulars to weekly Torah-study classes, and more than 300 people to a Shavuot retreat. These groups are "making Judaism matter for the current generation and the next generation," said Aaron Bisman, the executive director of JDub Records, who addressed the gathering on behalf of the 50 honorees. JDub Records, which promotes innovative Jewish music based on reggae and hip-hop, has reached more than 45,000 people through events and CD sales since its founding three years ago.

 

One way that the 50 groups become relevant is to draw on traditional Judaism to create programs that meet the needs of people in contemporary society. Take the example of Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing! The organization provides a Jewish context for monthly meetings for adolescent girls to discuss issues ranging from friendship to body image. A moderator leads a small gathering of girls, who meet each month with their peer group from about age 12 through the end of high school. Discussions rely on biblical characters to tease out and talk about life issues: The complex relationship between Rachel and Leah, for example, is highlighted to discuss sibling rivalry. In its three years of existence the program has grown from 40 to 145 groups across North America. According to the Rosh Hodesh chairwoman, Sally Gottesman, the group has succeeded because it is "meeting the real needs of girls" - that is, building self-esteem. But for many of the groups included in Slingshot, simply staying afloat is a struggle. "We didn't have an office until a couple of years ago," said Josh Neuman, the editor of Heeb, an irreverent magazine with some 125,000 readers.