Jewish Journal

Students pitch Jewish innovation at Milken school

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Apr. 20, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Will the future of Judaism come out of a revival of interest in ancient texts and traditions? Or will it be the result of a set of killer Jewish apps yet to be invented?

The organizers of the first High School Jewish Futures Conference at the Milken Community High School suggested that the future would most likely involve a little bit of both.

“The conception of renewal is a conviction that says that the basic structure is already there,” Milken Rabbinic Director Gordon Bernat-Kunin told the 80 people at the conference on April 6.

Most of those in attendance were Milken High School seniors; some of them were in Bernat-Kunin’s high-honors section of “Introduction to Jewish Thought.” That class used the idea of Jewish renewal as its point of origin, and the first hour of the evening was taken up by presentations from five of Bernat-Kunin’s students, who spoke about diverse topics from the Jewish past, from visual art that was centuries old to Jewish cultural phenomena of a much more recent vintage, like the Zionist movement.

The second hour belonged to the other section of the “Introduction” class, the honors section taught by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, which focused on Jewish innovation. (In an unusual innovative move, many Milken students — to the dismay of some faculty members — refer to this and all other Jewish studies courses simply as “Jew Law.”)

Hoffman’s students started with the opposite idea, that the key to the Jewish future is to be found in novel developments. In his introduction, Bernat-Kunin attributed this idea to a voice from the Jewish past, Martin Buber, who called such innovations the “ever-new becoming ... the new articulations of something that has never existed before.”

The format of that second hour — one observer called it a pitch-fest — was itself innovative. In about five minutes apiece, six teams of students presented their ideas for what Jewish innovation might look like, thereby fulfilling Hoffman and Bernat-Kunin’s hopes that students in both the renewal and innovative camps would engage with Judaism “as producers and not just consumers,”

Some of the ideas, such as an online service for philanthropists, were firmly rooted in the world of new media. Others were very of-the-moment, like Kosho, a kosher food truck servicing Los Angeles-area colleges devised by Adam Dehrey and Michael Bock. Still others combined not just old and new, but the Jewish with the secular — like JewTunes, which would provide a user-generated, text-based gloss of Jewish content to popular music.

As any fan of “American Idol” knows, watching contests is as much about the judges as it is about the contestants, and the evening’s panel — Hoffman called them “his dream team” — did not disappoint. The four panelists were very encouraging — which is to say much more Paula Abdul than Simon Cowell — even as they offered the student teams concrete ways to hone their presentation skills.

(Another signature “Idol” move — showing clips from some of the worst singers for the amusement of the audience — was left unexplored at Milken. The evening’s six presentations were selected from a field of 18.)

Speaking to Milken seniors Karen Nisimov and Ariela Wallace, who proposed a program that would bring Jewish 50- and 60-somethings to Israel, Esther Kustanowitz, who (among other things) coordinates The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ NextGen Engagement Initiative, complimented them for upending the convention that adults plan programs for teens and not the other way around. Executive coach Rhoda Weisman spoke admiringly about their choice to target folks in middle age, which would help their startup “leverage” the influence and wealth of that population. And Joshua Avedon of the “thinkubator” Jumpstart pointed out that they could’ve turned their presentation into an ideal “elevator pitch” in just five words: “It’s Birthright for baby boomers.”

It fell to Gary Wexler, founder and president of Passion Marketing, and parent of a Milken alumnus, to slow things down, if only a touch. “Do you know what leverage means?” he asked the students, without even a hint of condescension in his voice. “And do you know what elevator pitch means?”

Nisimov smiled. Wallace shook her head.

Time was running short. “Let’s talk later,” Wexler said.

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