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An Open Letter to Joshua Venture: Doing Jewish Ritual is Being Jewish

I submitted ModernTribe to Joshua Venture this year. We made it through the first stage but got cut before the interviews.

There are likely many reasons why we are not a good fit for Joshua Venture. Looking at the recipients versus ModernTribe is like an easy game of "which one of these is not like the other?"

Joshua Venture gave me feedback on my application today and what direction ModernTribe should go in to make a social impact. I'm sharing this feedback and my response because I believe the it reflects a misunderstanding about Judaism, human behavior, psychology, Jewish identity, and what we do here -- big picture "do" -- at ModernTribe.

Here is the substantive part of the feedback from Joshua Venture. The emphasis is mine.

Innovative Jewish products have the potential to resonate with consumers in a new and exciting way, but their long-term effects can be difficult to measure. The educational component alluded to in your application was intriguing; however, readers were looking for more substantive demonstration of what this may look like or how it could contribute to Jewish identity-building. If the ultimate goal of selling contemporary Judaica is to achieve social impact, then we encourage you to further develop and optimize the educational piece of your venture.

And my reply (names removed)

Thank you!

I appreciate your feedback.

Just one counter point I'd like you to consider about the long term effects of making Judaica exciting, desirable, and fitting for a broader reach of people, that the effects of such are "difficult to measure," and that the educational piece is necessary to achieve social impact. I disagree.

An important component of Judaism is doing. So if a Jewish family lights shabbat candles, hangs a mezuzah, hosts a seder, does havdalah, lights the menorah -- they are being Jewish -- they are practicing Judaism. They are behaving Jewishly. Providing ritual items that people want, enjoy, display, and use is an end in itself. Just like providing a meal to satisfy hunger is an end in itself.

Are there other, farther reaching long-term effects one could measure (such as a stronger Jewish identity)? Of course! I'm a psychologist: if there is one thing we know is that behavior both affects and reflects beliefs. But, I argue, especially in Judaism where action is more important than beliefs, more people using Judaica = more people being Jewish = end in itself, period.

Just like one wouldn't say to a food bank-- yes, you gave out 4500 meals this year -- but what is the long-term effect of those meals? Are people really less hungry, more nutritionally healthy? Of course they are.

If more people are buying, enjoying, displaying, and using more Judaica, are they really more Jewish? Of course they are.

ModernTribe's ultimate goal of selling contemporary Judaica is to achieve social impact: and we are already achieving it.

Thank you again for the feedback. Even though I don't agree, it shows that I didn't do a good job of explaining the link between practicing Jewish rituals and being more Jewish.

I got an immediate reply with an explanation that food banks are amazing and necessary but it's a band-aid fix -- maybe what ModernTribe is doing, by inspiring more Judaica and Jewish themed "stuff" is an immediate fix but not systemic? Here is my reply:

If the systemic change desired is stronger Jewish identity then more people buying, enjoying, displaying, and using more Judaica, achieves this systemic change too.

What psychologist would debate otherwise? In fact, I bet "lighting shabbat candles" is a measure of Jewish Identity on many surveys. What a great operational definition of Jewish Identity!

Unlike food that is "consumable," and in a few hours later, one is hungry, the deliverable of ModernTribe is durable (yes, the object is durable, but I don't mean that): behavior affects beliefs in durable ways. Lighting shabbat candles "stays with you" -- in a psychologically understood way.

Maybe the real issue is that the Jewish Identity ModernTribe supports is in home (vs. community) and centered around ritual practice (vs. ethical)?

Community and ethics are important (and sexy!). But, I'd argue in home ritual practice is a necessary (but insufficient) part of Jewish Identity. I also argue it is more necessary (for Jewish Identity -- not in an absolute sense) than feeding the hungry, organic farming, meditating and art. I know that may make you wince. But please consider that it may be more necessary for Jewish identity: to continue being Jews, not just good people. Plus, this necessary part of Jewish identity will not be championed outside the Jewish community, ever: there will never be secular organizations exciting American Jews about Judaica. It is only something that Jews will do for Jews.

What do you think? Am I full of sh*t, on target, or meh?

8 Comments

Let me also give you some context, my JV proposal was to create a Judaica Co-op to support American Indy Judaica artists and designers, help take them to the trade shows, develop and market their products, educate them about this process, because few of you (us) have the resources to do it ourselves. So “long-term effects can be difficult to measure” is not just referring to selling Judaica but creating Judaica that appeals to our market.

Posted by Jennie on May 04, 2010

I thought your response was spot on – things start with doing. I like your site a lot!

Posted by Julia on May 09, 2010

Interesting story; thanks for sharing.

My immediate reaction was to Joshua Venture’s use of the term consumers. As I wrote in my blog post “Why I hate the term consumer” (you can see where this is going), calling people consumers implies their only job is to buy, use up, and throw away things. I would much rather see Joshua Venture use a specific, insightful term; for example, “Jews” or “Jews and friends.” This is important because it’s easy to think, perhaps subconsciously, that things that are merely consumed don’t have lasting value. But as Jennie points out, that’s not true because exciting Judaica can lead to Jews practicing Judaism through the rituals, with enduring benefits.

In this case, I also believe that using the term consumers bifurcates people’s lives into the material realm and the spiritual/philosophical/educational realm: you can either buy something or become enlightened, but the two don’t have any intersection. Again, this is a false duality because the objects (Judaica) can lead to the religious practice. Who would argue that buying a book can’t lead to greater knowledge?

Posted by Jeremy on April 30, 2010

Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but it sounds to me like JV is trying to differentiate between simply selling Judaica and creating an educational plan to ensure people know what to do with that Judaica once they’ve purchased it.

Posted by dlevy on May 02, 2010

Yes, I totally agree with you Esther. Not only did Joshua Venture provide feedback like they promised, every transaction has happened on time, as they said it would. It is a very professionally run organization.

And the feedback is great! Like I wrote, I obviously did not do a good job persuading how what we do strengthens Jewish identity.

Posted by Jennie on April 30, 2010

I too am impressed not just with the initial feedback, but the dialogue that has stemmed from the process.

My good friend, Tevye, is fond of saying “on one hand…on the other hand.” Reminds me of the Talmudic expression Eilu V’eilu — “these and those.” Two conflicting opinions that both have merit.

There are points made by Joshua Venture that are right. And there are points you make that are right. Both right. Incomplete alone, but right together.

Here is a question to ask yourself: do you truly believe that doing Jewish is enough? You have done wonderful work in making the ritual “doing Judaism” more accessible to amcha. So why not take it to the next level??

Just a few pre-Shabbos thoughts.

Posted by rivster on April 30, 2010

I have to read this more carefully before I respond about the content of your back-and-forth.

But how amazing is it that they’re providing personal feedback to you – so many people apply for so many things, and never find out why they don’t make it. I think it’s a real gift that they’ve given you the chance to have this substantive conversation instead of a mere “sorry you didn’t get the fellowship, try again some other time.”

Posted by Esther Kustanowitz on April 30, 2010

I read your post on fb and the longer version on your website and thought that one thing that, I think, sets you apart and makes your contribution to “Jewish identity”, and certainly maybe more specifically “Jewish American” identity is this idea of keeping meaningful ethnic traditions resonant by incorporating them in intensely personal ways. In order to do so, one must keep up with what personal ways are in style and appeal to members of the market. The entire business’ raison d’être is about keeping people engaged with traditions by providing them with products for self-expression that fit their own personal identity (perhaps as an urbanite, perhaps as an adolescent or perhaps as a working mom). The essence of Modern tribe is that it’s, well, modern, and therefore consistently participating in the dialogue Jews have with their immediate society, individual personalities and shared cultural history. An inclusive aspect to what you do is that you educate and appeal to non-jews while keeping tradition alive and personalizable to Jews of all persuasions, within and beyond both Israel and the United States of America.

Posted by Vanessa C. Davies on April 30, 2010

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