Are DAOs the future of Judaism?
DAO stands for decentralized autonomous organization.
NOTE: This essay is for JOOL’s premium subscribers. The first half is available for free; the second half is accessible to those who have a premium subscription.
Once upon a time, there lived a Talmudic leader named Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, in the 2nd century CE.
When Rabbi Azariah replaced Rabban Gamliel as head of the beit midrash (study house), he suspended Rabban Gamliel’s rules which offered beit midrash access to only the most elite students.
Rabbi Azariah removed the doorkeeper tasked with preventing students who did not meet Rabban Gamliel’s scholarly standards. And he had 400-to-700 benches added to the beit midrash to accommodate the waves of new students who seized the opportunity to study.
“Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s unexpected decision paid off,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote. “On the day that the beit midrash was opened to the masses, the Talmud says, the most difficult legal problems were solved.”1
Rabbi Azariah’s decree almost perfectly depicts what is known today as a DAO (pronounced “dow”), which stands for decentralized autonomous organization — a new kind of organizational structure built with blockchain technology.
“In their purest form, DAOs are groups that form for a common purpose … governing bodies that oversee the allocation of resources tied to the projects they are associated with and are also tasked with ensuring the long term success of the project they support,” Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times. “Once it’s formed, a DAO is run by its members … to manage a common treasury or vote on certain decisions.”2
To be sure, DAOs are still in their infancy, but theoretically they can be:
More transparent than traditional organizations, because all activities are fully public
More efficient than traditional organizations, because services offered are handled automatically in a decentralized manner (for example, distribution of philanthropic funds) rather than human handling, or centrally controlled automation, prone to manipulation
More democratic than traditional organizations, because every participant can vote on group decisions, not just boards or executives
More agile and fast-moving than traditional organizations, because they’re often mission-specific and you can set them up and wind them down quickly, with significantly less red tape than forming a traditional organization
So, how are DAOs related to the future of Judaism?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of DIY (do it yourself) — DIY costumes, DIY air fresheners, DIY bird feeders, DIY escape rooms, DIY toys, et cetera.
Fittingly, there is a growing movement called DIY Judaism. I first learned about it in Zack Bodner’s book, Why Do Jewish?
“As synagogues and institutions fail to speak to mainstream Jews,” he wrote, “more of the regular Jews still want to do Jewish, but they’ll want to do it their own way.”
In 2013, findings from the then-largest known study of North American families raising Jewish children pose a provocative question: Could DIY Judaism be the answer to concerns about declining Jewish identity and engagement?
The PJ Library surveyed more than 20,000 Jews across North America that year, and their findings suggest that meeting families where they live — literally, in the home — is where opportunities for increased engagement and the formation of Jewish cultural identity begins.
“Jews are actually not losing their interest in the Jewish religion and culture, but are finding new pathways to engage with their heritage,” said Harold Grinspoon, PJ Library founder. “Our survey findings show that people are willing — more than willing, they are eager — to reconnect with Judaism on their own terms. Furthermore, what is starting in the home sparks interest to then connect with the larger Jewish community.”
According to Barry Finestone, President and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation, the answer is to double down on Jewish literacy so we can make Jews feel like they know enough to do their own thing.3 (This insight was one of our inspirations for starting to build JOOL.)
“Something else to ask ourselves is what we should throw out,” Bodner wrote. “What are the parts of the rituals and holidays we should retire, and which are the sacred cows that should never go away? Or are there no sacred cows? I’m not sure I have a good answer to these questions, but I’m not sure I need to. I think the point is that to make Jewish life meaningful, relevant, and joyous for the next hundred years, we need to let the Jewish people decide.”
This is precisely how DAOs are related to the future of Judaism: They enable infrastructure, systems, and protocols that position the people to decide!
For decades, Jewish organizations have seemingly told us how to be and do Jewish — and where as well. For decades, it seems that if you or I had a good idea for your Jewish community, or for Jewish communities in general, we would probably attempt to engage a Jewish organization about it, and they would determine if and how to execute it, in many cases according to their own self-serving logic and innovation-adverse governance. (I’m speaking from experience, unfortunately.)
“While risky and bold initiatives in the Jewish world are exciting — indeed, they will be the lifeblood of the Jewish future — this is not a new phenomenon,” Bodner wrote. “What is different now is the fact that most legacy institutions are not attracting new members and donors the way they used to. This will have enormous ramifications for how Jews think about community, centralized decision making, and philanthropy.”
OneTable is a great example of decentralized community building, decision making, and philanthropy. Inspired by ancient Jewish wisdom, they empower young adults to find, share, and enjoy Shabbat dinners by subsidizing a portion of the meal, depending on how many people sign up to attend. Instead of telling their community how to observe Shabbat, OneTable offers their community members “to do their own thing” within the general confines of Shabbat.
To learn more about OneTable, listen to this episode of The Future of Jewish podcast, in which I interviewed Aliza Kline, the co-founder and CEO.
For every OneTable in the Jewish world, however, there are thousands of Jewish organizations which still operate according to centralized community building, decision making, and philanthropy. This explains why, for instance, 65-percent of U.S. Jews — the second-largest population of Jews in the world after Israel — say no one in their household is a member of a synagogue. And even fewer actively participate in synagogue services, with 80-percent of U.S. Jewish adults saying they don’t “attend services at a synagogue, temple, minyan, or havurah at least once a month.”4
“The majority of the next generation of non-traditional Jews are searching for sacred spaces that look different,” Bodner wrote, “spaces that are welcoming to children, that embrace nature, that have more gender parity in their leadership, that speak to their quest for spirituality more than dogma.”
In his book, Empowered Judaism, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer echoed this sentiment. He wrote: “The future of Jewish life is dependent on Jews — not just rabbis — taking hold of the rich, challenging, surprising, and inspiring heritage that makes up our texts and traditions.”
So, what does DIY Judaism mean for the future of Jewish organizations, synagogues, and the like?
I, personally, do not think DIY Judaism automatically makes Jewish organizations and synagogues uninteresting or irrelevant moving forward. I believe they will determine their future, each for themselves, based on their actions (or inactions). That is, they will either decide to continue operating by exponentially old-world, outdated paradigms, or they will demonstrate a fundamental understanding about the value and importance of updating themselves to be more aligned with new ways of doing things.
It’s interesting, because we’re taught that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but imagine if we could inject new life into an old dog. Would that do the trick? In the Jewish world, this means genuinely welcoming new, fresh, young (and of course qualified) people to lead these Jewish organizations, with the goal of serving constituents and communities alongside the more veteran leaders of each organization.
In my experiences as a “professional Jew,” I can tell you that Jewish organizations are largely run by older folks who seem threatened or intimidated by new, fresh, young faces, or simply uninterested in listening to us. Lenny Silberman, the founder and CEO of Lost Tribe Esports, told me that the deadliest word in Jewish organizations has just two letters. Can you guess what it is? I couldn’t.
The two letters are N and O, meaning “no” — which Silberman said is why so many new, fresh, young people quit their jobs at Jewish organizations, because they aren’t afforded the creative autonomy and professional freedom to bring their novel or innovative ideas to life. Ultimately, this produces a workplace culture in which dreaming big is discouraged.
In all fairness, many Jewish organizations are subject to limited budgets and a heavy dose of risk-adverse bureaucracy, which existing leadership didn’t necessarily create, but which nonetheless run rampant among many of these organizations. At the same time, we know that many Jewish organizations are flush with funds and simply choose to allocate them in curious ways. For instance, more than $2 billion was spent by U.S. Jewish organizations on management and fundraising — and $93 million on galas alone — in one recent year.5