By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com            

Few people in Atlanta have a better view into innovation and creative thinking in the global Jewish community than Seth Cohen, who four years ago made the transition from what he calls semipro status in the Jewish community to a senior-level Jewish communal professional.

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Seth Cohen

After years as a Federation board member and time as president of Jewish Family & Career Services, Cohen now travels the world as the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s director of network initiatives. His job is to find and support young Jewish adults who are leaders and to help them form communities to strengthen the Jewish future.

“There’s cleverness and innovation and creativity everywhere,” he said. “It’s about whether you can get it done.”

A self-described “radical optimist,” Cohen offered insight into the Atlanta Jewish Times’ quest to recognize innovators in our community during an interview June 24 at the Schusterman offices at Atlantic Station.

AJT: How do you make the connections to build the Jewish community?

Cohen: I think at Schusterman, a lot about what we’re thinking about in terms of engaging individuals is twofold. It’s finding Jewish leaders and leaders who are Jewish. That’s at the highest level at Schusterman. So once you start to look for leaders, I think the qualification that we’re most looking at is not do you have an idea, but it’s do you have the motivation, the competency and the capacity to make that idea happen.

AJT: How big is the need in the Jewish world to find innovation?

Cohen: I think we focus on the phrase innovation. I think the fetish for innovation belies a much greater need, which is connection. When we talk about innovation, we’re talking about creative ways to solve problems or creative ways to connect people, and the truth is we have problems, and we need to connect people. The way our foundation thinks about this is what is the problem you’re trying to solve, or what is the community you’re trying to create, and what are the best approaches you can use to do that. In some cases, the oldest approaches are actually the best, and in some cases you need novel approaches to do it, and I think that sometimes we focus too much on the new when actually we need to spend time reinterpreting the old. …

The greater discussion we should be having as a Jewish community is not what are the innovative projects, but how we can make contemporary Jewish life truly engaging in innovative ways to move audiences. It’s not projects. We’re at a point where Jewish life itself can be reinvented, ground in tradition but radically inclusive in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. That’s the conversation I think we should be having about what’s innovative, not necessarily projects and people, but how is Jewish life itself being reimagined for the next hundred years, for the next thousand years.

AJT: Should that reimagining take place within traditional institutions, or do we need an iconoclastic approach?

Cohen: We should recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants. So was Heschel a radical? Or was he an institutional movement rabbi? He was probably both. I think that when you start to focus on individual empowerment, you can transcend institutional limitations and silos. I don’t think there’s an inside the Jewish world or outside the Jewish world. I actually think some of the best innovations are coming from outside the Jewish world entirely, and we should be paying attention to them because that’s where the audience is that we want to engage, and the individuals that we want to engage also are paying attention to. So I don’t think any one group has ownership of innovation in the Jewish world, and I don’t think any one group is inherently incapable of innovation. Like everything, the best innovations come through a spirit of co-creation and collaboration where diverse stakeholders share diverse ideas and come to some blended solutions.

AJT: Do you see that spirit of co-creation in the Jewish community?

Cohen: I think that the spirit of co-creation and collaboration is increasing as younger generations take responsibility for leading organizations both as professionals and key volunteer leadership. People who have grown up or are inherently predisposed to live in a collaborative economy and the collaborative society are going to be well positioned to collaborate. I mean, we share rides. We share apartments. We share everything. I think the generation that’s learning how to share in the commercial economy is very well positioned to learn how to share in the co-creation of solutions.

AJT: Is there a generation gap in Jewish communal leadership?

Cohen: Just like challenging problems can’t wait for solutions, I think that communities can’t wait for leaders. I think a community recognizes leaders. It doesn’t make leaders; it recognizes them. And I think that what is important for that emerging generation is to do what it takes to be recognized as leaders. It means doing something. What are you doing to change the community? It’s not a question of what you’re saying, and it’s not a question of where you’re going. I think it’s a question of what you’re doing. I think what great innovators do is they see a challenge, and they lead by responding. I think what great leaders can do is see a challenge and lead by innovating, and the gap between those two is still significant, and it’s critical.

AJT: Are things on the right track?

Cohen: I think that the Jewish world is facing perhaps some of its greatest confluence of challenges, certainly in generations, which gives me reason to be concerned. I think we also have a level of knowledge, passion and commitment among young adults to take on those challenges that gives me enormous reason to be optimistic.

AJT: So what needs to happen?

Cohen: I think as a community we have to demonstrate humility. We have to recognize that just because it worked before doesn’t mean it’s going to work again. So we need to be bold. We need to take risks. We need to understand that some of the best models are not only not in our community, but are not necessarily in the Jewish community. I think we need to articulate expectations and demand commitment. There should be no recognition of success without articulation of commitment or expectation of commitment.

AJT: Are we focusing too much on rules?

Cohen: We live in an era where we spend a lot of time talking about rules, to the detriment of spending time about tools, and for sure we should be spending more time about tools. What are the tools of inclusivity? What are the tools of engagement? What are the tools of Jewish literacy? What are the tools of collective empowerment? What are the tools of communication that allow us to engage with one another around substance? I think we need to spend a lot more time on that and less time about what the rules are or even who makes them. … We don’t live in a moment where we can afford for people to wait for permission to ignite change in our community. They need to go and ignite it, and if they cross a line, if they create a challenge and need to ask for forgiveness, so be it, but don’t wait for permission.

AJT: Do we too often see Jewish communal professionals as bureaucrats?

Cohen: Yeah, we think of Jewish life as a service industry, and it’s not. It’s a creative industry. Jewish life is not a service enterprise; it’s a creative enterprise. And different individuals have different roles in co-creating what it means to be Jewish. We each have our roles, and they’re equally valid and they’re equally valuable.

I do think there is one thing where we could be much more creative. I think when it comes to Israel, which is one of the most innovative ideas in mankind, we need to continue to sustain our idea of understanding how Israel changes and grows, how we engage with it changes and grows. It is the most innovative and creative idea in constant need of innovation and creation.

AJT: Israel requires innovation and creativity from us or from Israelis?

Cohen: From both. Just like everything else I’ve been talking about with you in terms of collaborative, I think that we’re at a moment in time that demands a much greater sense of common cause between Israel and Jewish diaspora, not only for the sake of strengthening Israel, but for strengthening the Jewish future.

AJT: Should we have done a list of creativity in nonprofits instead of innovation?

Cohen: I think it’s important to talk about innovation, but I would have preferred to see not so much a list of innovation or creativity, but here’s a list of the top 25 collaborators in the Jewish community or collaborative initiatives. Because at the end of the day, I think it’s ultimately collaboration and execution that’s going to change the Jewish world, not innovation.