Doubling Down on Jewish Innovation

Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network emerged from the publication of Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future in 2013. The lead essay in the book argued that, while legacy Jewish organizations are on the decline and, it seems, American Jewish life is deteriorating, there is a countervailing process on the Jewish landscape of emergent communities and organizations that represent the seeds of an American Jewish renaissance.

A version of this article was published by eJewishPhilanthropy on May 14, 2024.

The book elicited much interest and comment from major stakeholders in the American Jewish community. Based on that interest, in 2015 we secured funding from The William Davidson Foundation to create a national initiative that was designed to find, convene, and build capacity with the “creatives” — individuals who were driving the phenomenon described in Jewish Megatrends. These creatives were building new organizations and communities across a range of sectors including: social justice; spiritual practice; independent minyanim; Jewish learning groups; and eco-sustainability.

Kenissa was not designed to be a permanent organization. It was designed to be an initiative with a fixed, seven-year time horizon. Phase 1, which included a continental mapping effort, took place in the first five years. By the end of Phase 1, we had built a network of some 400 creatives who were re-imagining the nature of Jewish life and community for their generation. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the creatives we found were in their 20s and 30s, as were the people that their initiatives attracted. Phase 2 involved a survey of our creatives so that we could harvest our learnings and share it with the wider community. While Phase 2 took longer than we originally projected, we are now releasing a final report and the results of the national survey we conducted.

The boutique nature of most of the organizations coming into our orbit was evident from the first few national convenings of the Network. Unlike legacy Jewish organizations (e.g. synagogues, JCCs, Jewish Federations) that are multi-dimensional, the start-up economy rewards organizations (as well as businesses, though that was beyond our scope) that identify a very specific niche and target audience.

We wanted to identify the themes that were of greatest interest to next generation Jews. We called them “sectors” and each represented a “portal” through which many Jews were prepared to experience a facet of Jewish life and community. The sectors were:

  • Chochma/Wisdom – engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage;
  • Kedusha/Sacred Purpose – helping people live lives of sacred purpose;
  • Tzedek/Social Justice – inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world;
  • Yetzira/Creativity – the human ability to imagine/invent/create ideas, science, art and culture;
  • Kehillah/Covenantal Community – creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission;
  • Shomrei Adama/Guardians of the Earth– pursuing a lifestyle that is ecologically responsible and sustainable, including new communal living arrangements.

We learned that the organizations and communities in the Kenissa network opened the door to many Jews who were not attracted by more mainstream Jewish organizations. Our research revealed that when people began to engage with one of these Jewish communities of meaning, it often represented the first exposure that those individuals were having with Jewish life as adults. We also found that engagement in one sector, often led participants to explore other dimensions of Jewish life. We came to represent the phenomenon of emerging Jewish communities of meaning in a Venn diagram.

Here are some of the other key findings from our survey research:

  • Leaders of Kenissa organizations demonstrated a strong commitment to social justice, inclusivity, and community engagement.
  • Approximately 60% of Kenissa responses mentioned the racial justice awakening, racial equity, and the Black Lives Matter movement as factors that deeply affected their organizations. Many respondents mentioned their affinity to multiple identities and how those identities intersected to shape their work as leaders.
  • Many respondents expressed frustrations with the established Jewish community’s lack of support or understanding of their work. These were sentiments that often were expressed during our national convenings as well.
  • Many Kenissa leaders cited Jewish and personal values as the motivation for founding their organizations. The organizations they created were primarily in the sectors of Jewish education/learning, community building and spirituality.

The report and survey research we are releasing this month brings Kenissa to a close. What we projected to be a seven-year project extended to almost nine years due to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ironically, we issue this report amidst another crisis—the October 7th atrocities by Hamas in Israel and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Many voices in the Jewish community say that this is a time to circle the wagons, focus primarily on support for Israel and defense against a global rise in antisemitism. Jewish foundations are already re-assessing their priorities, shifting resources to a variety of responses to this crisis.

The Middle East crisis facing the Jewish community and the Jewish people is very real. The Jewish community has impressively rallied to raise huge amounts of dollars and, in a short time, created numerous programmatic responses to the crisis in Israel. Still, it is a mistake to delay efforts to make Jewish life more creative and compelling. The Jewish community’s ability to be resilient in the face of crises depends on its ability to make Jewish life a source of meaning and human flourishing. Jewish identity in a free society is a choice. If next gen Jews experience Jewish life as simply a vehicle to respond to threats to Jewish survival, at home and abroad, many will choose not to engage at all.

From the outset, Kenissa was premised on the belief that younger Jews were re-inventing Jewish life in exciting and compelling ways, even as there were many indicators that legacy Jewish organizations were losing relevance and market share. Kenissa was designed to bring national attention to this phenomenon, identify and convene the creatives that were founding new organizations that spoke to the interests of young Jews, and build bridges between these innovators and the organized Jewish community. We accomplished the first two goals with great success. The third goal continues to be a work-in-progress and we stand ready to serve as a resource to Jewish Federations, Jewish foundations and other interested parties that understand the importance of supporting efforts to re-think, re-shape and transform Jewish life and community.