U.S. Judaism Is Going Through Its iPod Stage

It is critically important to the future of American Judaism that the innovation sector accelerate its transition from iPod to iPad so that a new network of Jewish institutions can take over before the old system collapses.

Yom Ha'atzmaut came a month early at the University of Chicago. After a year of resisting the Chicago Jewish Federation's demands to cut the budget of the university's Hillel house in a way that would have killed our innovative program, Hillel's board asked for corporate independence from the Federation and was promptly fired, as was I, on March 30.

Independence didn't come about in exactly the way we had expected. It rarely does.

We are now in the process of setting up a new independent organization that will carry on the work of engaging uninvolved students in Jewish life that has been succeeding so beautifully. (As just one example, University of Chicago Hillel has achieved the highest Birthright registration rate of any university in the country for two years in a row, and we were on pace to bring 20 percent of our Jewish college students to Israel before their graduation. )

People have asked me why this split happened. The simple answer is that there was a disagreement over where to cut the budget to compensate for the federation's declining fortunes. Should we cut administration and overhead, as the Hillel board wanted, or should we cut the student program, as the federation wanted?

But the deeper answer is "The Innovator's Dilemma." In a book by that name, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen seeks to explain why what he calls "disruptive innovations" - that is, innovations that constitute true paradigm shifts - almost always come from new players in a market and not from a market's dominant companies.

Why, for example, did Kodak go bankrupt even though photography has never been more widespread and central to people's lives? Why was the tiny digital photography start-up Instagram bought for $1 billion a short time later? Christensen explains that large companies become prisoners of their current customers. Even though they might see major change coming, there is never a moment in time where it makes economic sense for them to divert resources from products that are selling well in order to invest enough in the more speculative disruptive innovation. By the time it's clear that the disruptive innovation is going to win the day, it's too late for the big company to get into the market, and the result is Kodak.

Imagine the perspective of Dell when the iPod came out in 2001: It's just a music player, and we make computers, so it doesn't have anything to do with us! But the iPod evolves. It starts to show videos, it takes pictures, it makes phone calls. It becomes a platform for hundreds of thousands of applications. Then it gets a lot bigger and is called an iPad. And the iPad is now disrupting the laptop industry. Dell may not survive.

What has not yet been fully understood is that there is a revolution under way in Jewish life. We are only at its beginning - the early iPod stage - which is why it isn't being seen for what it is.

What has been called the "innovation sector" is only about a decade old. It contains within it the seeds of a new Judaism in much the same way that early secular Zionism and early Hasidism did. Both started as fringe movements that were not embraced by the Jewish establishments of their day, and both ended up totally transforming Judaism such that it was barely recognizable at the other end of the transformation. The most radical and all-encompassing transformation in recorded Jewish history was the development of Rabbinic Judaism, which began life while the Second Temple still stood and then became dominant in the centuries that followed the Temple's destruction.

The characteristics of the Jewish transformation beginning to take root in the innovation sector have not yet fully emerged, but they are beginning to.

It has long been said that "we are all Jews by choice today," and it's true. Especially among young people - but I hear the same thing among empty-nester baby boomers - there is little patience for Jewish leaders who speak in the language of obligation to urge participation in synagogue life and communal institutions.

Rather, there is a search for meaning, for a Judaism that makes life better, a Judaism that is "choosable." Jews are no longer open to an "arranged marriage" with Judaism; they want to "date" it and see if they fall in love. Jewish institutions must win their affection and commitment every day.

It has become quite clear that the old network of American Jewish institutions, especially those that operate in the non-Orthodox world, are in an advanced state of decay. They are built around the fundamental idea that Judaism is a status, not a choice, and Christensen's research suggests that they will not be able to change.

It is thus critically important to the future of American Judaism that the innovation sector accelerate its transition from iPod to iPad so that a new network of Jewish institutions, organized around new ways of being Jewish, can take over before the old system collapses. The innovation sector needs major investments of capital to continue its "R&D" work and to scale up what is working. Our recent experience in Chicago suggests that this investment probably won't come from the institutions currently dominating Jewish communal life.

Israel's Independence Day celebrates the success of 20th-century Judaism's biggest disruptive innovation. Now that this year's celebrations have concluded, let's turn our attention to investing in the next one.

Daniel Libenson is the former executive director of University of Chicago Hillel and the current president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, a think tank and education center.