Seth Cohen
Applying Optimistic Thinking to Complex Community Challenges
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A ‘hanukkiyah’ of optimistic predictions for the year ahead

Contemplating the future plants seeds of hope that can convert both good and bad of the past year into positive action

Every year, the miraculous story of Hanukkah reminds us of the unpredictability of the future. This historic retelling of unexpected victories and tales of long-lasting jars of oil highlights the vast chasm that often exists between what we can reasonably expect and what actually occurs. It is a story that feels even more timely in a year that has defied all expectations.

And while making predictions might be an act of audacity after a year like 2016, I have always found the idea of hypothesizing about the future to be an exercise of optimism. It is a reminder that we have the opportunity to channel both the good and the bad of the past year into positive action and impact in the year ahead.

So with that in mind, and in the spirit of the eight-branched hanukkiyah, I submit for consideration (and debate) eight predictions for the year ahead.

1. A Focus on Radical Inclusivity
There is a wide array of individuals that are strengthening the fabric of our community who still are not fully welcomed and included. This includes multi-faith couples and families, Latinos, Jews of color, members of the LGBTQ community and individuals with disabilities, to name but a few. Given how many organizations remain exclusionary, there is a need to demand radical approaches to inclusivity in the Jewish community. I predict that with organizations such as Be’chol Lashon, InterfaithFamily, Keshet and A Wider Bridge, as well as foundations such as the Ruderman Family Foundation, helping to lead the way, we will come closer to recognizing and embracing the many essential strands of our collective tapestry in the year ahead.

2. Challenging Times Lead to Unexpected Alliances
The world of 2017 will look different than many of us might have expected, but one hopeful prediction for the year ahead is that new challenges in America, Israel and Europe will create opportunities for new partnerships and coalitions. While “unity” might be more fantastical than likely, I do think that organizations across the Jewish community will increasingly find themselves creating partnerships inside and outside of the community necessary to address common causes. Encouraged by an emerging generation of boundary-spanning leaders and philanthropists, I also predict leading Jewish organizations will focus more on building bridges than building barriers.

3. Inter-generational Engagement
It’s obvious: there is far too much talent in the Baby Boomer and GenX generations that is currently under-leveraged as powerhouses of possibility for leading our community. And many of those individuals that were on the “20 under 20” and “30 under 30” lists years ago are now feeling like they are on the “Forgotten over 50” list. As evolving circumstances demand the need for diverse types of leadership, I predict many organizations overlooking this experienced talent will wake up in 2017 to the opportunity in front of them and focus on creative ways to create stronger and more intentional inter-generational cadres of leadership in our communities.

4. Rabbinic Activism and the Power of (Con)Text
Another group that I foresee having a meaningful impact on the year ahead are an emerging generation of social media savvy rabbis that lend their voices and knowledge to activist causes. Of course, activist rabbis are nothing new, but at a time when so much feels unmoored, individuals steeped in Jewish text and wisdom have much to share with those looking for age-old inspiration to help us understand and overcome new challenges.

5. Moving Pictures (and Moving Community)
Although Jews are often considered the “people of the book,” as we continue to move toward a world of communications via shareable squares, emojis and Internet memes, the Jewish community will need to adapt as well. Over the next year, video and multimedia formats will take on an even more significant role in conveying what our community stands for, and the quality and content of those videos needs to meet and exceed what our audiences sees outside of the Jewish community.

6. Place-making (Real and Virtual)
As much as digital communications are critical, there is no substitute for place-making — the effort to connect community in a physical space or experience. As more and more individuals seek to connect offline and “IRL,” there will be a greater focus on finding ways to use under-utilized and non-traditional physical buildings and public areas creatively and communally, especially in cities where the “tyranny of traffic” overrules the ability to access JCCs or other place-based institutions. One other key place-making idea to look out for is the emerging influence of virtual and augmented reality experiences that can help blend the best of both worlds.

7. Focus on Community (and Customer) Journeys
For years we have heard of “design thinking” in the Jewish community, but in the year ahead, I think there will be even greater focus on the user experience (UX) of community engagement. Leading consumer brands (such as Red Bull and Lululemon) are focused on how customer journeys are propelled by products that inspire the personal motivations and aspirations of their consumers. In an era of increasingly diverse choices and accelerating mobility of community members, we will need to create strong user-centered strategies that help individuals build their own journeys (including journeys to Israel) informed by Jewish values, ideas and culture.

8. Philanthropy and the Urgency of Trust
Last, but certainly not least, philanthropy will continue to evolve in 2017, as it encounters a shifting landscape of nuance and need. As trust in government, media and other institutions continues to be challenged, philanthropic-focused organizations will need to work even harder to maintain the trust of both the populations they serve as well as those that help make philanthropic impact possible. Building trusting relationships is always important and ever more so in era of “fake news.” Philanthropy (led by organizations such as the Jewish Funders Network) will need to stay focused on what’s real — and recognize its valuable role in helping to bring trust and integrity to the forefront of our community.

So there you have it: eight predications for the year ahead. While they may not be as dramatic as the miracles of the Hanukkah story, they are at least as far from certain and will require conscious and collective effort on behalf of all of us to realize.

While predictions allow us to play the role of seer (or gambler), they also allow for the imagination of expectations to take root in our minds. In doing so, every prediction plants a seed of possibility that we will undertake action to make those predictions a reality. So perhaps in our hanukkiyah of predictions, we can look at the shamash (the candle that lights and serves all others) as the candle of wishful thinking. In doing so, I am optimistic we can create a light will endure far longer than any of us could predict.

About the Author
Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a consulting and community design lab that helps organizations and leaders design and apply optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. You can reach him at www.appliedoptimism.com
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