Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections On Israel

It has been a while since we were able to update the St. Lou Jew. Between the intensity of the last week in the PresenTense Institute, as well as the difficulty of trying to cram in time with everyone before I left Israel... well.. you get the picture. Readjusting and Re-acculturating always helps you to appreciate the differences between where you were and where you are. Read on for a few thoughts about Israel and what St. Louis can learn.

Israel has a way of changing people. The country makes secular people religious and vice versa. The problems are both mindblowingly complex and maddeningly simple. The culture can make you want to scream in frustration (that no two cab rides between the same points are ever the same price) and cry in appreciation. The smells, sights, sounds, and tastes are all more vivid, and everything is often in sharper focus. But can an experience in Israel change St. Louis?

After 6 weeks in Israel, learning how to write business plans, executive summaries, how to navigate public transportation, sharpening my Hebrew and soaking up the local culture, I have a few ideas about what the tiny nation-state can teach St. Louis.

1. Transportation
In Israel, you can get nearly any where without the need for a car. Sure, you are reliant on a network of buses, shared cabs, and trains which may not arrive on time, may not be clearly marked, or make much sense to the casual traveler, but once you master them, they are quite powerful and mostly convenient. St. Louis used to be the street car capital of the world, and while those days are long gone, the city has finally made some small strides in reinstating public transportation funding. The bigger issue is that most people in St. Louis view public transit as a people mover of last resort. We take for granted the relative affordability of cars and gasoline and look at the Metro and buses as less dignified or convenient way to get around. Because of the range of our cars we move further and further from the urban core, making public transit even less relevant. If young adults took the lead in starting to ride the bus around the city, more people would be convinced of the safety and convenience of this form of transit, it would go a long way towards reviving activity in the city. See, on public transportation, we are forced to interact with and acknowledge each other, something from which cars conveniently remove us. In a city like St. Louis, the most precious resources are the young creative people who will create jobs and opportunities, but without a density of these people, their talents will merely dissipate. The Jewish community can take a leadership role in championing expanded use of public transportation and can encourage community members to stop moving to the exurbs.

2. Hospitality
A few weekends ago, I stayed with two different families, each of whom implored me to feel at home. In Cincinnati I'm close with the parents of almost everyone of my good friends from growing up. In St. Louis, although I know a lot of people whose parents live in town, I have barely met (let alone know) anyone's parents, and rarely get to experience home hospitality. Granted, in Israel, I'm a visitor, and I'm fortunate to have a large network here, but the hospitality is unreal. I've been offered places to crash by people I've met once and invited to more dinners than I have time to attend. Hospitality isn't just a matter of meeting parents, though, it is also how you treat people, how you welcome them into your space, and make them feel at home.

If St. Louis wants to be a comfortable and welcoming place for Jewish young adults, people need to start making extraordinary efforts to make them feel comfortable and welcome. Did you just meet someone new? Invite them over for a meal with friends, introduce them to your crew, make them feel like St. Louis is a place they fit in. One of the primary purposes of the Next Dor house is to provide that home for people in St. Louis and to tap into that hospitality.

3. Innovation
Israel has more start ups per capita than any other place on earth. The country has fostered a sense that there are no barriers. St. Louis is known for a conservative culture that tends to smother new ideas. There is a certain way that things have been done and a certain order that people wish to maintain. In order to create the jobs that will bring people to St. Louis, and entice them to stay, that culture has to change. The easiest and lowest cost way to do this is to simply be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. If organizations can align their massive connections and resources behind innovative ideas and people, both the old and the new will win. St. Louis can also start community innovation funds (like PresenTense's CEP model, or giving circles) in which young adults with ideas are connected to resources like seed funding and advice from business professionals on how to launch their ventures. Individuals can share business connections and help people network and everyone should be helping to showcase young adults who are doing interesting things and make sure their ventures are supported.

4. Local fresh food
In Israel, you don't have to go to the shuk to find amazing produce. Not only can you find fruit stands everywhere, but even the supermarkets carry high quality local produce.

St. Louis has a number of farmer's markets, including Soulard and Tower Grove but what about putting pressure on Schnucks and Shop 'n Save to include local produce and other products in their selections? How many people are growing mint on their windowsills or tomatoes in their backyards? A people with roots in the land is a people on more firm ground.

5. Local solutions to local issues
Israel has no gas or precious metals, scant supplies of fresh water, and is surrounded by hostile neighbors. Due to this, Israel has always relied on its most valuable resource, the intellect and creativity of its citizens to come up with innovative solutions to its problems.

St. Louis has continued to squander its most important resource, its young people. The city has done little to attract or retain this talent and between larger market cities, and the suburbs, the City of St. Louis is getting its butt kicked. For St. Louis to succeed, and for the Jewish community to be viable and vibrant, it must look to its young adults and empower them to create the future.

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis has recognized many of these issues and is beginning to align resources around young adult programs like Next Dor and Moishe House, as well as to look to national and international models of Jewish social entrepreneurship. For these efforts to succeed, the Federation will need to not only put money into the issues, but also be willing to change their modus operandi in order to encourage young adult innovation and participation.

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