Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What's Ahead in 2011

Over the past year, at an ever-increasing rate, a number of interesting conversations have been taking place about Jewish Community, Jewish communities, and urban renewal.
I have had the opportunity to speak on a number of these topics, from the Birthright Next Conference in New Orleans, Synagogue 3000's Next Dor conversation in New York, and the recent conference on Rebuilding Jewish Communities in Detroit.

It certainly seems as though these conversations are coming to a head.

Recently, the Editor of David's Voice (my brother), wrote an interesting article about the role and responsibilities of the Jewish community in Cincinnati to the city itself, its history, legacy, and future. He writes:

And now the challenge is upon us again. I feel like it is our responsibility, as Jewish Cincinnatians, to help our city at large and help save another part of what gives our city its definition, the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. In short, we can’t let the past slip away. I implore you to learn more about the history there, to take one of the brewery tours (which are fantastic - http://www.otrbrewerydistrict.org/) or even just take a stroll down one of its enchanting streets. I think you will begin to see why what we have there is worth saving.

In many of the conversations I have been a part of, this idea has constantly resurfaced; Jews have often played a large role in the development of the cities in which they find themselves, but what about the redevelopment?

As young adults today, we have more mobility than ever, that when coupled with the allure of bigger cities, is often irresistible. And why not? Bigger cities mean more jobs, more culture, a larger dating pool, and a sense of adventure.

How can cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, and St. Louis stand up to all that New York, Chicago, and San Francisco have to offer?

The first way, as the David's Voice piece alludes to, is the there actually are quite a few interesting things already happening in our cities, but we are often so out of the loop that we have no idea. I spoke with a girl from St. Louis who is currently studying in Texas yesterday. She group us where most of the Jews did, hearing the same tired refrain that the city was dangerous, and as a result, never learned much about it. I started telling her about some of the neighborhoods and haunts I like and she responded with a bit of bewilderment. She hadn't even considered St. Louis as an option, because she knew nothing about it.

The second area in which smaller cities can compete is by emphasizing the functional gaps that do exist and presenting them as opportunities for willing entrepreneurs. I spoke with a friend yesterday who received a prestigious fellowship that will set him up for success in a new educational venture he hopes to launch. If he can be properly connect to venture capital, mentors, and human capital in St. Louis, he might be willing to start the company locally. We need to look to Washington University, among others, as a resource to connect him with young programming and leadership talent. Not only will this help him access the talent pool he needs, but it will also keep that talent in the area.

But the responsibility doesn't just rest on the secular leadership of the city. Jewish communities must take leadership roles by creating and contributing to:
1. venture capital available for young entrepreneurs
2. job placement services for both graduating students and local young professionals
3. local internship opportunities to give students a chance to see St. Louis beyond the ivory tower
4. the preservation of the unique historical character of St. Louis
5. encouragement of urban resettlement of community members

Entrepreneurs go where the opportunities are, and in a world of web-based products, the opportunity is often ease of access to capital. St. Louis, for example, ranks 3rd in dollars in trust funds. These funds do very little for the local economy because they aren't put into action. Combined with a conservative investment climate, and most harmful, a fear of failure, people are simply less likely to take chances. By putting up dollars, and creating a culture of supporting innovation and learning from failure, St. Louis can and will draw more entrepreneurs, who will create jobs.

The economic recession has created an very interesting phenomenon in which post-college children are moving back into their parents' houses. This influx of young adults, who might otherwise be elsewhere, should be seen as an immense opportunity. It is imperative that we make every effort to provide this group with productive employment opportunities while we have access to them. Additionally, it is important that we connect with university students in St. Louis in order to provide them employment opportunities post-graduation. St. Louis has already attracted top-tier talent to the city as students, but it has not retained them. Many St. Louis employers actively avoid transplant students for fear they won't stay. This must change.

Piggy-backing on this, we must create internships that will provide students with positive and appealing opportunities to spend a summer in St. Louis and get to know the city while gaining valuable experience. In a conversation hosted by a Wash U dean with alumni who had stayed in town, the one commonality was that all of us had spent a summer during college in St. Louis. That summer showed me an entirely different side of St. Louis that was exciting and enticing.

Beyond interchangeable jobs and internships, there is a character of the city which should be celebrated and preserved. The urban neighborhoods of red brick are unique and high quality (so much so that abandoned buildings are often stripped of this brick). Now, we shouldn't go overboard, requiring materials so expensive that they all but prohibit developers from rehabbing the property, but neighborhoods with character are attractive, particularly to younger buyers and should be protected.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, is advocating on behalf of urban resettlement. Sure, the suburbs seem safer, have better public schools, and are 'great places to raise kids', but they are also unsustainable in their density and fragmentation, and tend to suck resources from their urban core. If this urban core collapses, so too will the suburbs, as we have so vividly witnessed in Detroit.

You see, quite simply, if the cities in which our communities reside collapse, our communities will surely follow. Rebuilding our cities will require the coordination and resources found in the Jewish institutions, combined with the ideas, resourcefulness and brazen idealism of our young adults. Read More......

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

SHI 360 Takes On The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Who raps in Hebrew, Arabic, French, and English? None other than super-semite, SHI 360. SHI, who gained a fair amount of exposure with Subliminal, one of the most well-known Israeli rappers, has been working on his newest solo album, and just released a clip from a song called 'Jew World Order'. In it, SHI takes on many of the most insidious accusations made against Jews with a sarcastic, "We did it".

Which reminds me of a joke about a Jewish man who was riding on the London Underground reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his, who happened to be riding in the same underground car, noticed this strange phenomenon. Very upset, he approached the newspaper reader. "Moishe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?" Moishe replied, "I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage, Jews living in poverty. So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!"

Check out SHI's new track:

Read More......

Monday, December 13, 2010

Think Tank: Rebuilding Communities

Most people think of Detroit as the first failed major American city, but if anywhere has a chance of totally reinventing what an urban community looks like, it is this very same place.

This past Sunday and Monday, the Jewish Federations of North America convened a conference entitled "Rebuilding Jewish Communities by Attracting and Retaining Young adults.

St. Louis was an obvious candidate to participate in this conversation. The population of the city itself had been in decline for a long time, with businesses packing up shop, airlines dropping routes, and natives young adults often not returning after college.

The conference sought to present case studies of the efforts being made in several cities across North America including Montreal, Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh and STL. In addition to leaders in the young adult movements of these cities were representatives from the Schusterman Family mega-Foundation, PresenTense, Moishe House, and Jewish Federations of North America (with yours truly representing Moishe House, Next Dor STL, and JFED STL's Concierge model).

Every city is a bit different, but what united those in attendance is that they are, by and large, losing young adults to more major markets. Overwhelmingly, this population flight has been from smaller communities to larger ones, from the Midwest outward to the coasts. Richard Florida even wrote a book or two about this.

The conference showed that people are indeed troubled by this trend, and that these boom towns of the 18-1900's want to have ensure they have futures well into the 2000's.

While the conference started out with some excellent information about young adults as a demographic and the overall urban renewal strategies needed to revitalize neighborhoods and cities, the majority of the conversations focused on Jewish young adult engagement.

Some of the recurring themes included creating social venture capital, investing in Jewish young adult ideas and supporting the resulting ventures, shifting the culture from focusing on young adult philanthropic giving immediate towards building identity and community first, and then letting the value of both naturally lead into support. Many of the presenters spoke about helping connect people to the city, beyond merely the Jewish community, so that people feel a part of the city life and can see the location as a long term destination.

Speakers pointed to the fact that we live in an era of 'Jewish by choice' as well as increasingly fragmented identity, which is more fluid than previous generations. This led to the point that Judaism and Jewish community is no longer motivated by paranoia and fear, but must rather be championed by values, joy, and service.

One of the interesting points that came up in the course of the discussion is that young adults, Jewish or otherwise want to be where there is a perception of opportunity; opportunity for creating a social life, a professional life, and a romantic life. If young adults abandon smaller cities and don't return, the cities will fail under the weight of a decreased tax base and lowered density. If the cities fail, the Jewish communities will fail. It is therefore essential that any community development/engagement strategy understand that it fits into the broader goal of urban revitalization.

If you are from St. Louis and find yourself elsewhere, why did you leave? What would bring you back? And if are already here, what do you need to keep you here and excited to be here? Read More......

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review of 'Last of the Red Hot Mamas'

Sophie Tucker was one of the queens of show business. With a career that spanned several decades, styles of music, and deeply impacted the likes of Bette Middler, even those of us unfamiliar with Tucker, have likely been impacted by her contributions. When I heard that the New Jewish Theatre was performing a show entitled "Last of the Red Hot Mama's", I figured it would be worth learning more about.
It turns out that everything about Sophie Tucker was large. Her personality, her voice, and apparently, her libido. The NJT's take on her definitely got the first two parts of this equation right. The cast were all solid, particularly the three actresses playing Sophie throughout her life. Each brought a great deal of talent and passion, and songs like 'My Yiddishe Momma' were filled with emotion. The new theater at the Staenberg JCC has top quality lighting, while maintaining an rather intimate feel. A few lines were lost when actors were facing away from us, but in general, being up close to the action was worth it.

The story largely follows the life of Sophie Tucker from young immigrant, working in her parents restaurant, through her career starting off in tin pan alley, to her ascent as an international sensation. The story weaves in songs from the period to help tell the story, as well as to provide background into the sounds of the times.

I can certainly see my grandparents getting nostalgic at the performance. Which brings me to a criticism of the show. Sophie Tucker's performance and persona drew greatly from the risque and often relatively explicit content, hence the name 'Red Hot Mama'. With the exception of a few lines of dialogue, well into the second half of the show, there was little attention given to this aspect of Sophie Tucker.

Overall, the show was well produced and performed. If you are thinking about checking it out, stay tuned for details about a special performance (and price) for young adults. You can also check out dates and prices here.
Read More......

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chappy Hannukah

So the weather has suddenly caught up with the calendar, and just in time, the festival of lights shows up. So, maybe it is worth explaining, just what is this Hanukkah anyways, and why does it have a whole station on Sirius/XM
For many Jews, particularly in America, Hannukah is basically our answer to Christmas ('instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights!'). Except that it isn't, at all. For one, the holiday predates Jesus (and therefore, his birthday), and also, despite being a pretty common story (they tried to kill us and keep us from being Jews, we survived, let's eat), Hannukah is actually a pretty minor Jewish holiday.

Ok, so what is this all about? So, you probably know about Mattityahu (Hasidic Rapper Mattisyahu's namesake), and his son Judah, who revolted against the Syrian king Antiochus after the king sacked Jerusalem, spoiled the temple and effectively outlawed the practice of Judaism.

Maybe you heard that the revolt was successful and the Maccabees pushed the Syrians out of Jerusalem and rededicated the temple. And, I'm guessing that you knew that there was only enough oil to burn for one day, but miraculously, it burned for eight (which was the amount of time it took to harvest, crush, and processes more oil).

But you probably didn't know much about the mystical dimension of an eight day festival. Check it:
It has also been noted that the number eight has special significance in Jewish theology, as representing transcendence and the Jewish People's special role in human history. Seven is the number of days of creation, that is, of completion of the material cosmos, and also of the classical planets. Eight, being one step beyond seven, represents the Infinite. Hence, the Eighth Day of the Assembly festival, mentioned above, is according to Jewish Law a festival for Jews only (unlike Sukkot, when all peoples were welcome in Jerusalem). Similarly, the rite of brit milah (circumcision), which brings a Jewish male into God's Covenant, is performed on the eighth day. Hence, Hanukkah's eight days (in celebration of monotheism over Hellenistic humanism) have symbolic importance for practicing Jews.

Great, but where did all this music come from? Why is Hannukah probably the second most celebrated Jewish holiday in the US other than Passover? Probably because it is fun. I mean, you get to eat fried foods, you get chocolate coins for acting like a kid and spinning a top, and in a lot of families, you get presents.

Particularly in a country like ours, where people trample each other for Black Friday sales, and brag about their holiday present haul, its hard to not want to keep up with the Smith's, right?

Well, either way, here's to eight bright (and crazy) nights! Hannukah Sameach

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