Two innovations in Jewish education have recently struck a chord with me.
First, a new social startup called, OneTable was created to welcome Jews to the “oldest new way to do Friday night.” With the support of materials, invitations, a Shabbat coach, and an online platform, OneTable helps you – anyone – “Make connections. Make meaning. Make Shabbat dinner.”
OneTable Shabbat dinners are hosted by anyone – those who grew up making Shabbat and those for whom it’s new – and anywhere – in homes, at friends’ homes, in restaurants, outdoors, and elsewhere. The online platform helps hosts find guests and guests find hosts, and the support helps hosts craft meaningful Shabbat experiences that speak to them. In its first few months, hundreds have already participated in home-grown meals.
The second is PJ Our Way, a pilot project to extend PJ Library – which currently sends free children’s books to kids aged six months to eight years – to children aged nine to 11. PJ Library’s regular books are selected by a central committee of experts and mailed out, en masse, to 125,000 Jewish households each month.
To my three-year-old, it doesn’t matter that someone else is choosing the book. To nine-to-11-year-olds, however, it does. PJ Our Way has set up an interactive website to allow participants to choose the books that are right for them and to share their feedback with others. Through blogs, videos, and polls, kids can tell others about what they read, and make their own decisions about what to read themselves.
Young Jews demand to be “prosumers,” rather than passive consumers
What strikes me about both of these initiatives – and plenty of others – is the emphasis on empowering participants as “prosumers” – to be both producers and consumers.
The term prosumer was coined as early as the 1970s, but only came into use with the development of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s. Web 1.0 is like a newspaper: information is produced by one person and consumed by others. Web 2.0 is based on user-generated content – videos posed on YouTube, tweets on Twitter, posts on Facebook and maps generated on Google Maps. A prosumer both produces and consumes content or experiences. Increasingly, young Jews are demanding the ability to play an active role as prosumers of Jewish experiences, rather than passive consumers.
Hillel has been fostering the needs of prosumers for decades. Empowering university students to create their own services and Shabbat meals, advocacy social activities, part of Hillel’s success in engaging young adults has been its trend-setting work in building prosumers. Similarly, UJA’s Community Connect initiative has set up the infrastructure for young adults to plan and run programs for their peers.
Judaism is designed for prosumers
Unfortunately, not all of our community organizations are equipped to serve the needs of prosumers. Supplementary schools that teach a prescribed curriculum without addressing students’ interests, synagogue services that are performative rather than interactive, and organizations that lack transparency and forums for participant input and direction will all fail in a market driven by prosumers.
At its core, Judaism is designed for prosumers. OneTable captures this in leveraging of Shabbat meals. Chevrutah, the traditional form of text study in which partners challenge and ask questions of each other and the text, is another prime example. And, of course, the Passover seder, during which each of us imagines ourselves as if we left Egypt, is the primary example.
To succeed in engaging the next generation of Jews, we all must return to these prosumer roots. Our institutions must redeploy themselves as engines to propel the creativity of producers who will create high-value content that will be compelling enough to be consumed. At the same time, we need more new ideas – like OneTable and PJ Our Way – that will reinvent the landscape of Jewish engagement for a new generation.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.