JDub and other cultural innovators deserved more

According to the laws of social Darwinism, the strong survive and the weak die. That may apply to market capitalism, but should it apply to Jewish nonprofits?

There’s no easy answer, but with word that the nonprofit music company JDub Records has shut down, we wonder whether the Jewish community does enough to preserve its cultural innovations.

JDub dazzled the Jewish world when it came on the scene nine years ago. It re-invented contemporary Jewish music, and was responsible for breaking out superstar reggae artist Matisyahu.

Our story this week notes that the company failed because it could not maintain a steady income stream. As a nonprofit in a niche market, JDub never could have stayed in the black relying on record sales alone. Only a cadre of committed donors could have done that.

This is a lesson of JDub’s collapse: When it comes to innovation in the nonprofit Jewish realm, success should not be assessed via standard profit-and-loss metrics.

In a bad economy, entrepreneurs in the Jewish world face additional challenges. It cannot be easy navigating a market of young adults in search of their Jewish identity.

A recent study revealed that 11 percent of U.S. Jews — around 700,000 — fall between the ages of 20 to 34. That’s the market, and when you zero out those who have no interest in Judaism, it may be smaller. Not much to work with.

That’s why philanthropists must commit to long-term funding of the best ideas and best innovators.

This is happening locally with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Impact Grants Initiative. This program will provide grants to seven nonprofts, run by some of the Bay Area’s brightest social entrepreneurs. Their companies break ground in Jewish music, Torah study, Jewish food and more.

Local organizations such UpStart Bay Area, which nurtures young Jewish entrepreneurs with counsel and advice, add to the climate of support.

The federation has committed to three years of IGI funding, giving grantees time to flourish. Still, unless these nonprofits cultivate multiple sources of income, they too could go the way of JDub.

These are tough times. Many individual and institutional philanthopists have pulled back. Dollars are scarce. With that as backdrop, we applaud the federation for sticking with multi-year funding commitments.

Not every Jewish start-up will survive. Fortunately, the drive to revive Jewish life will never stop. We hope the funds to back them will be there, as well.