JTA reported earlier this week that JDUB, the Jewish music promoter, announced it is closing. Lamented by the doyens of the self-declared American Jewish innovation sector, it is one of a series of signs of a collapse in funding for similar creative “start-ups” founded in the early 2000s. Heeb magazine, the self-declared “new Jew review” whose contributions to Jewish culture include publishing a picture of Roseanne Barr dressed as Hitler cooking burnt gingerbread man cookies, recently announced it was discontinuing its print edition. Jewcy.com was similarly forced to abandon plans for profitability when its major funders pulled out in February 2009.
The turn against these outfits by their funders should be welcomed as a potential indication of growing seriousness in American Jewish priorities. It is no doubt true there is nothing wrong with innovation in itself. Yet we should be wary of the enthusiasm generated by unsustainable appeals to passing whims about the nature of Jewish commitment.
From the start, these outfits were predicated on the idea that changes in personal identity and technology had made the traditional work of institutions like the Federations obsolete. Since young Jews saw themselves as “citizens of the world” and eschewed both denominational labels and the idea Judaism could not be successfully mashed together with other forms of identity (witness the already passé “Buju” phenomenon), the future lied with organizations able to appeal to these ways of thinking.
The organized American Jewish world was spooked by population studies in 1990 and 2000-1 that showed many young Jews were alienated from Jewish life and increasingly marrying non-Jews. They subsequently grasped at the solution offered by JDUB and its cousins, who found themselves supported by philanthropists, which in turn increased their attractiveness for young Jews looking to make a name for themselves.
A media culture obsessed both with Jews and anything that claims to be new and convinced by the idea of a new “hybridity” in personal identity granted heaps of publicity on the efforts. As the initial promoter of Matisyahu and with a record that included attracting 150,000 young people to events in 472 cities, JDUB seemed to stand as the most successful organization, at least among those with a creative bent. Typical also was JDUB’s claim it could “forge vibrant connections to Judaism” for a population with anything but.
Of course, dodged entirely was the question of what was specifically “Jewish” about attending a rock concert, even if the performer wore payes. Also left unaddressed was the long-term sustainability of such a loosely defined Jewish identity.
Sooner than even optimists could have hoped to expect, these questions have become unavoidable. Funders are largely answering them, thankfully, by directing their priorities elsewhere.
It would be foolish, however, to think the collapse of JDUB means its advocates have lost. Just this past April, a new cheerleading report, “The Jewish Innovation Economy,” was produced by three of the leading funders of Jewish start-ups, who reported that communal funding has now reached $200 million annually. And nearly wherever one looks in the organized Jewish world, one sees the influence of the thinking that gave JDUB its initial boost.