Institute seeks to build leadership among Jewish professionals

By JESSICA KIM COHEN
Herald Intern

A locally founded Jewish nonprofit is in its third year of piloting a fellowship program.

The Institute for the Next Jewish Future (INJF), founded in 2011, facilitates Jewish innovation by bringing together practice, ideas and education, according to the organization’s founder and president, Hyde Park resident Daniel Libenson.

As part of this mission, the fellowship program aims to teach and train early-career Jewish professionals. Libenson hopes that this will be the program’s last pilot year.

“We’re looking for people who are either looking to start up new things or to work in organizations that are starting out or doing something that is out of the ordinary, in terms of the Jewish world,” Libenson said. “Rather than managing existing Jewish organizations, or really seeing existing Jewish organizations as the place that they’re likely to work.”

The fellowships are planned to last for two years.

INJF is developing a full curriculum for the program, which will include skills like community organization and improvisation, along with academic courses such as Jewish history and the theory of innovation.

“We imagine a course on innovation, with case studies, so people can really understand how innovation works,” Libenson said. “It’s not just sort of randomly doing new things. We think it’s really a skillset that can be cultivated.”

Fellows will also put their ideas into practice and share them with others in the field, according to INJF’s first fellow, Rachel Cort. To date, INJF has hosted four fellows.

“I’ve been kind of like a ‘test-case’ in a lot of ways, for trying different types of programs and seeing how they might relate to this training program that we’re building together,” Cort said. “Like the improv part of the program that we’re developing now: that’s because I read something about improv in the workplace and improv as it relates to collaboration.”

Libenson said the fellowship program will involve studying for about 25 percent of the fellow’s time, and working with an INJF partner organization for the remaining 75 percent.

Currently, INJF works with jU, a Jewish group at the University of Chicago also directed by Libenson, and SVARA, a Chicago-based organization that uses a traditional approach to Judaism, while encouraging inclusivity. However, they are working towards a larger network of partners.

“We have no particular vision of the ‘Jewish future’ that we’re trying to push forward,” Libenson said. “I see us more like a science laboratory, where we’re saying: we don’t want to be restricted in what we do by any ideology. Let’s just try a lot of things and see what works, and as things work, let’s keep building on those things.”

hpherald@hpherald.com