In 1417, an obscure Italian scribe named Poggio Bracciolini changed the world. Europe was mired in the deepest of the Dark Ages, an era of disease, violence, stagnation, and death. In this context, Poggio risked his life hunting and publishing an ancient Epicurean poem called De rerum natura ("On the Nature of Things") that celebrated the world's beauty and life's pleasures. In so doing, Poggio helped to spark the Renaissance, an intellectual transformation that pried Europe from the grip of Church authority, infused it with a spirit of experimentation and curiosity, and ultimately gave birth to modernity.
In 1996, another renaissance began that also changed the world. Apple Computers was failing. Its visionary co-founder, Steve Jobs, had been ousted from the company in 1985, and in the decade that followed, the company had seen its market share collapse and its stock dwindle. In 1996 alone the company lost $1 billion, and by the fall of 1997, it was 90 days away from total insolvency.
In this bleak situation, Apple brought Jobs back, launching a tenure that saw the development of revolutionary products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Jobs' return to Apple heralded arguably the greatest corporate renaissance in modern history and, ultimately, transformed our world.
These two stories are, each in its own way, about a renaissance, a rebirth and rejuvenation of something that was struggling or had become stagnant. What do these two renaissances -- separated by centuries and thousands of miles -- have in common? And what can the American Jewish community, which has witnessed synagogues erode and disappear with alarming regularity in recent years, learn from past renaissances in order to empower us to engineer our own?
The renaissances sparked by Poggio and Steve Jobs featured several common themes: authenticity, creativity, courage, and passion. These ingredients contribute to a kind of "recipe for a renaissance," and they are precisely the necessary ingredients to spark a renaissance in the American Jewish community.
Perhaps counterintuitively, renaissances happen in large part not by inventing something new but by rediscovering and drawing upon past wisdom. When Poggio set out to find "De rerum natura," it was over 1,000 years old. Poggio hunted down the book because he believed the ancients possessed wisdom that could illuminate his age: how to nurture beauty and romance, how to investigate freely into the nature of the world, how to uncover truths for human flourishing.
Similarly, Steve Jobs didn't revitalize Apple by creating a revolutionary product like the iPod. Jobs saved his company through a return to Apple's roots, emphasizing the company's founding principles: beauty, design, and quality. That's why, upon his return to Apple, Jobs' first major product launch was the colorful iMac, basically a fresh take on an old idea, not a radically new concept.
Authenticity is also crucial for synagogue revitalization. For a renaissance to take root, American synagogues' pathways need to be driven once again by Jewish sacred sources, by the spiritual power latent in the age-old Jewish tradition. We can capture the spirits of today's Jews only if our synagogues once again pulsate with the unique moral and spiritual wisdom of our ancient tradition. We can ignite a renaissance by demonstrating that the faith found in our synagogues features powerful secrets from yesterday that can truly help us live better and change the world today.
Steve Jobs never felt constrained by the way things had always been. In the same way, Poggio dreamed of a world of enlightenment, discovery, and beauty, despite the fact that the world he saw every day was benighted, provincial, and somber.
A similar spirit of imagination can spark synagogue revitalization. Synagogues would look very different than they currently do if they took seriously the godly work of birthing novelty and spent more time and resources thinking about how they should try to do things today and tomorrow rather than how they did things yesterday.
The necessary partner for creativity is courage. Courage is what enabled Poggio to embark on a treacherous quest to seek De rerum natura and reproduce and popularize a book that the medieval Church deemed heretical. Steve Jobs bet his company time and again on the untested fruits of his creativity, taking the risks necessary for creativity to flourish.
Similarly, fear is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the renaissance of the American synagogue. We synagogue leaders often let our fears -- of losing beloved customs, ruffling feathers, or losing members -- stand in the way of our ability to experiment, change, fail, and try again. Only with courage can we celebrate and harness imagination, envision and work toward a future that does not yet exist, and take bold stands on matters of social justice. If we are not brave enough to stand for our dreams and our values, then we will never be able to rise.
The most active ingredient in the renaissance recipe is an intense and all-consuming love for someone or something. Passion is what drove Poggio to risk his life seeking and publishing a lost and taboo ancient poem. Passion propelled Steve Jobs to create Apple, to return a decade after having been fired, and ultimately to rejuvenate the business.
Similarly, a renaissance in American synagogue life will require the job of building, maintaining, and growing a synagogue to be transformed into a passion for changing lives through Torah, for building meaningful community, for repairing the world. Only passion can propel us to shake off the dust, rise, and begin our journey from the mountain of stagnation toward the great promised land of renaissance.
Jewish tradition insists that we are not destined to any fate. We can break with a script that no longer works and forge a new future. All it takes is authenticity, creativity, courage, and passion. It's a recipe that gave us Michelangelo, Columbus, the iPhone, and the iPad. And it's a recipe that can give us magnificent, modern, vital, and vibrant synagogues. Go ahead. Think different.