Before any members of the recent TED-style panel at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles spoke even one word, the expectations for what the panelists would accomplish were great. Emcee Andrew Cushnir, Federation’s executive vice president and chief programming officer, opened the Jan. 22 event by asking the audience of about 130 a very simple, practical question: “Why are you here? Why did you come?”
That’s when an elderly woman energetically yelled out: “We want to change the world!”
The event, “What’s So Jewish About Changing the World?” was born out of PresenTenseLA — Federation’s social entrepreneur fellowship — the panel was composed of five people: Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; David Myers, chair of UCLA’s history department; Julie Platt, Federation’s campaign chair; Adlai Wertman, a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, and Danielle Berrin, a staff writer for the Journal who authors its “Hollywood Jew” blog.
Each participant was tasked with answering, from the standpoint of his or her respective field, why Judaism emphasizes improving the world and why Jews have had such a disproportionate impact, particularly on American society. Myers connected the issue to the Jewish people’s unique religious beginnings.
“This ragtag group of nomadic dwellers managed to arrive at this extraordinary new belief system known as monotheism,” Myers said. “Heeding that one God left them with a sense of obligation and responsibility to uphold the moral standards that they themselves saw as issuing from that God.”
Berrin chronicled the immense impact that Jews have had on Hollywood, and in turn, the influence that film has had on U.S. culture.
“The founders of Hollywood [most of whom were Jewish] actually conceived of entertainment as an expression of value,” she said.
Wertman touched on multiple topics as he spoke, but he concluded by suggesting that engaging in positive change — specifically, charity — is something that every Jew should do, whether or not they view it as a Jewish obligation. “Ultimately, I don’t really care why we give as long as we give."