In the fall of 2010, Sukkot became a national topic of conversation when Reboot, the Jewish cultural organization, engineered an architectural competition around the temporary shelters used to celebrate the holiday. “Sukkah City,” as it was called, will have a slightly different sensibility when it is staged again in 2012, and the organization will have a new leader.
The average Jew couldn’t have built any of the earlier sukkahs, but this time around, each sukkah will come with a blueprint, said Executive Director Yoav Schlesinger, 32, who came on the job just weeks ago.
Of course, the market is already full of simple sukkahs, and that fact encapsulates a tension between insider and outsider that is central to Reboot. Schlesinger was hired in part for his ability to help Reboot negotiate that tension.
“The director has to be a person who fits in both worlds,” said David Katznelson, a board member who is himself both a record producer and a director at the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco. “He needs to be able to talk to our funders … and he needs to be able to talk to Rebooters, and they have no ties to traditional organizations.”
The group convenes Jews detached from their heritage but at the top of professions like entertainment and media at a posh annual summit in Park City, Utah. There, it nurtures conversations about how to rework traditions — like the sukkah — to make them more relevant to those who don’t already find them so: hence, Sukkah City.
Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s “Weeds” and Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker, are part of the Reboot network of about 380. The theory is that such efforts will have a kind of multiplier effect, pulling in more of the unaffiliated.
“Reboot brings more people to the table than almost anybody else,” said Will Schneider, the executive director of Slingshot, which publishes a donors’ guide to nonprofits that includes Reboot in its “standard-bearer” category of consistently strong organizations.
Schlesinger offers the neat combination of establishment bona fides, and a certain amount of alienation from them that will enable him to connect with the Reboot network members. His father is a Conservative rabbi, and Schlesinger went to a Solomon Schechter day school. But his own journey has involved angst around observance and some donning and then abandoning of kipa and tzitzit, the prayer fringes.
“Reboot’s great for me because I totally understand the problem,” he said. “It’s not always comfortable for me to be in the Jewish community. How do I stay connected when I’m outside, even if I’m not doing Shabbos or giving to the federation?”
Schlesinger, who will replace Lou Cove, will be the first Reboot head not to emerge from the network. He is a veteran organizational and fundraising consultant — clients included Wikipedia and University of California, Berkeley — who sees his job as facilitating the execution of the ideas that “bubble up” out of the network. He graduated from Stanford University.
An expansion of the tweaked Sukkah City to San Francisco and Los Angeles is on the agenda, as are album releases from the Idelsohn Society, the group’s record label. It just sponsored a “pop-up” store in San Francisco that attracted about 25,000 visitors, Katznelson said. The group is also contemplating “reboots” of the lifecycle events that have come to interest the network more as members marry and have children.
Co-founded by Roger Bennett, who also co-authored the cheeky examination of Judaism’s rite of passage “Bar Mitzvah Disco,” Reboot took some of its original inspiration from the scholarship of Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, who has shown that people have repeatedly remade Jewish life and even become leaders from the margins.
“Roger argued that culture was the key,” to attracting those people, Sarna said.
Reboot also has precedent in the Esalen Institute of California, said University of Oregon sociologist Marion Goldman. Her newly published book “The American Soul Rush” documents the encounters in the early 1960s of both liberal Protestant and Jewish clergy seeking to revitalize ritual with “cultural innovators” like Allen Ginsberg and Joan Baez.
Reboot’s impact is hard to measure, Schlesinger acknowledges. Slingshot’s guide highlights Reboot’s Sabbath Manifesto, the project that encourages a weekly day of “digital detox” as a major achievement. Reboot has also tackled the Days of Awe with 10Q, a website with questions designed to elicit personal reflection. The organization has no way to track how many people “unplugged” but says that 50,000 people visited the 10Q website in 2010.
The Jim Joseph Foundation, one of Reboot’s funders, has done a study of Reboot’s influence but is not yet ready to share the results. In 2010, the group reported revenue of about $2 million. Other major funders include the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the Jewish federations of Los Angeles and of San Francisco.