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The keys to Jerusalem—and JCCs


Having completed JCC Association’s first Innovation Lab: Jerusalem last Saturday night, Sounding Board is pleased to share a slightly adapted version of the program’s opening remarks for your reading pleasure.

It’s taught that when the first Temple was destroyed, the leaders of the community climbed to the top of the ruins with the keys to the city. This was more than 2,500 years ago. Jerusalem was a walled city like most, with a gate and gatekeepers who guarded it.

They shouted to the sky: “Oh Master of the Universe. You gave us these keys and asked us to guard your city and we have failed you! Then they threw the keys back to the Creator and a hand reached out of the heavens and grabbed them.” Since then they have never been returned.

I imagine this story telling us that the keys to Jerusalem live elsewhere in the world; everywhere, in fact—passed from generation to generation; that the city remains unlocked and open to people, ideas, histories, dreams, and work to build it. Jerusalem is a hands-on city, a city of builders touched by the hand of God—all reaching for what it wants and needs to be.

This is how I imagine JCCs as well. We share the keys to our space, our programs, our communities and our vision. And we too are hands-on places. Places of crossroads and diversity like Jerusalem. Places of travelers from one age or opportunity to another; places that exist for the purpose of a communal trust. And we are all its guards and stewards. We all hold the keys. I imagine JCCs as hands-on institutions, mini-Jerusalems—places of destination; Jewish Community Centers striving to be central and centers by and for the community, open to all. And we hold the keys.

We have just wrapped up our first Innovation Lab: Jerusalem. For three days of this hands-on experience—as well as a Shabbat together for about half of the group—we explored the essence of creativity and renewal in this ancient city. We learned how businesspeople, artists, social entrepreneurs, doctors, educators, and spiritual leaders invite fresh ideas into this community to increase the impact of their work.

We came to Jerusalem because the 20th century was about rebuilding this city as the eternal capital of the Jewish people—and a home for many, many people more. We came here because the 20th century was also about building a vast infrastructure for Jewish life in North America. JCCs are at the heart of that. Billions of dollars of capital; blood, sweat and tears. And now we ask: what should we do with them, these buildings that we have built, these treasures of the Jewish public square—centers of community and diversity and meaning and connection? Can we afford to run them? What programs should animate them? Who should fund them? How Jewish? How open? What businesses will ensure that they thrive? What should we do with all we have built? What needs to be built still?

We look to Jerusalem for inspiration. But we also have sought practical ways of thinking and doing, ways of reimagining our spaces and programs, informed, inspired, and in partnership with our colleagues here today.

To this end, we asked participants to delve deeply into a single theme: learn, do and take it home. Learn how innovators create; try it yourself in conversation. Take it home in a network for driving innovation from Jerusalem to our JCC system and back again.

We want to build an innovation network for the JCC world, and from board and staff meetings; to our Executive Leadership Seminar and Biennial; towards our JCC Association Centennial in 2017, this was a hands-on experience for all of us—whether you were able to join us in Jerusalem, or you will join us at another convening down the road.

If Jerusalem—this ancient city on a hill—can be ranked as the number one emerging Tech Hub in the world by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2015, why shouldn’t JCCs become the innovation hubs of the Jewish world in 2016, 2017 and beyond?

And just as we grapple to sustain and re-imagine our JCCs, we at JCC Association do the same. What programs are valuable to you? What aspects of what we do will invigorate and inform Jewish life in the 21st century as we look for ways to power this vast network of Jewish engagement, arguably the largest one outside our Jewish homeland? We have been hard at work establishing our priorities for 2015-2016 and will share them in a communication later this month.

Innovation comes form the Latin meaning to renew, to alter. Jerusalem is reaching out to us; it calls us. Listen. Everything we need to know to enhance and enrich and innovate in our ways of thinking and doing in JCCs is right here with us. Listen. Learn. Do. Most of all—take it home.

Innovation Lab was a hands-on experience. We came to Israel to build JCCs inspired and informed by the innovation hub of the Jewish world: Jerusalem, Jerusalem and JCCs. The keys to our future are here with us. As we go forward, it’s our job to take them and open the gates for our communities and our people.

This is a hands-on experience. We came here to build. And when we return to our JCCs, it will be time to go to work.


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