Blurring Boundaries: Creating and Consuming

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February 1, 2012
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Wayne L. Firestone

Dalia, a college student from Boston I met with recently, equated her current Hillel internship with her work as a camp counselor; she has both the responsibility to organize and serve others and the feeling that she is a part of a larger community from which she receives tangible support and a sense of identity. Dalia is an example of a young Jewish adult who is a “prosumer”: part producer, part consumer. She is a full-time Jewish citizen exploring rights and embracing responsibilities.

Although the idea of a prosumer was introduced by 1970s futurist Alvin Toffler to describe how shoppers were proactively defining products and services they intended to consume,1 it has roots in the early practices and teachings of rabbinic Judaism. As outlined and documented in the Talmud, the creation of the minyan was a central tenet to the coherence of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The minyan’s structure requires a minimum of ten individuals, which in essence means that each participant is simultaneously a critical producer and a consumer of the prayer experience. This structure — where each participant contributes — enables diversity and experimentation in Jewish rituals, including public prayer. Our ancestors clearly understood this collective phenomenon: They democratized the creation, facilitation, and geographic dispersion of Jewish life to the point that the assembly of at least ten families could create a community.

Fast forward to contemporary Western society, in which communities now form more organically and with greater diversity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and transdenominationalism), and we can already see the nascent development of a global network reengineering itself. It is now possible to envision thriving Jewish communities where the next generation of Jews, who perceive both the opportunity and responsibility to leverage our ancient traditions, are shaping their Jewish lives, experience, and observance.

We can learn valuable lessons from the Jewish prosumers among us. Here are three examples of prosumers impacting our community.

I first met PresenTense Group founders Aharon Horowitz and Ariel Beery when they teamed up with classmates at Columbia University to produce a film about the problematic portrayal of Israel in the classroom. My admiration grew as I saw how they engaged others to work collaboratively at PresenTense, where they apply their insights and understanding of social media to developing models of global social entrepreneurship with the goal of empowering young adults to implement community-building initiatives. Not surprisingly, they recently hosted an online discussion forum to broaden the conversation, connecting people from various backgrounds and disciplines in old-fashioned, face-to-face dialogue; Beery and Horowitz deepened the conversation on Facebook by focusing on prosumerism and leadership.

Limmud is another example of a community-owned and operated enterprise. As stated on its Web site, Limmud has “pioneered and evolved a unique model of cross-communal Jewish learning [and] involved thousands of people in hundreds of events over its 30 year history.” Initially skeptical, I encountered the Limmud methodology — their live “crowd sourcing” — first in Moscow in 2007 and more recently in London. Limmud flattens the learning landscape to blur the lines among volunteers, professionals, and presenters. Everyone in attendance is expected to contribute their sweat and their sechel (good sense).

Admittedly, I’ve noticed this trend of young adults actively participating in the creation of their own journeys regardless of prior Jewish involvement, background, and affiliation, in our organization’s experiment with student leadership networks. Hillel launched the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative pilot on a dozen campuses in 2006. At the time, we learned from our young professionals that they no longer needed to wait for official lists of Jewish freshmen because a new tool (Facebook) was providing publicly shared data about students who openly and proudly identified themselves as Jews to the online world and to their digital friends.

Once these students arrived on campus, we identified natural leaders who, with inspiration and guidance from a Jewish educator, could help others experience the insights, joy, and growth that comes from Jewish learning and text study. Since the launch of this pilot, we have worked with 1,500 student leaders on 50 campuses, observing how they determine the meaning of Judaism in their own lives and foster the process of discovery in other students in their networks.

Prosumerism is not merely a new phenomenon, yet it is no longer merely an old one. Thankfully, it has become a part of our world and something we should nurture for this and the next generation. It is a framework of opportunity for the Jewish people to continue on our path of individual inquiry and collaborative innovation.

1 See Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock.

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Wayne L. Firestone is President and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

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