When The Cab Driver is Elijah the Prophet: The Accidental Jewish Entrepreneur (Part 2)

This story is the second in a series called the “The Accidental Jewish Entrepeneur“, profiling Jews in unexpected places whose innovations and ideas change their communities for good. The second story comes to us from a traveler in Los Angeles, California:

I was visited by three prophets this Jewish New Year. They were not the people pouring off the sheet of the Torah scroll – no. Nor were they the righteous and G-d-fearing ancestors I encountered in the pages of my siddur.

Rather, they were the unlikely prophets – cab drivers – who ushered me to and from the airport. And though I pined for self-serving redemption this season, I quickly got more than I bargained for.

For, as I listened to each driver, I saw that the world’s creation and destruction rests in the hands that one human being offers the next. The locus of this season is with others. It is not, nor has it ever been, all about us.

The drivers’ stories bear this out.

First, there was Hannah, sleep-deprived and strapped for cash, who offered free childcare to a single mother in her building, a woman her whole community had all but written off and maligned. She knew that, by being there as needed, she could ease this woman’s way and raise her community to everything it ought to be.

Then, there was Abraham who traded his corner office for an Elijah-themed YouTube series (spoiler alert: He has a brother named Kevin and a Jewish mother-in-law who venture with him around the streets of Los Angeles), gleefully peeling off his power suit after thirteen years of a legal practice that weighed like bricks upon his soul. He saw the state of the world and proceeded to dedicate his life to making others laugh and hearing their stories in his cab.

And finally, Isaac, witness to his daughter’s personal annihilation, who made the unspeakably gut-wrenching decision to stop giving to her at all. And mysteriously, what he gave her was the “gift of her own sobriety.” A year later, she had made a personal journey from g’nut to shevach (degradation to redemption).

The Jewish New Year brings out all the grappling of our seeking and striving souls. We are given license by our tradition to define our personal purpose, destruction, and road to redemption. But, though we may be tempted and – let’s be honest – mandated, to go full-blown self-referential when we experience time, this year, entrepreneurs can do more.

We can enter this time of reflection with a view to relinquishing the focus on ourselves. We can look around us to friends, to neighbors, and even total strangers, picturing our lives with others in it and being even more mindful of these people’s essential needs. Furthermore, we can take a greater leap, still: we can become so attuned to the lifespans and story webs of everyone else, that we stop utilizing the holiday to only make sense of our own worldview and experience.

Rather, we can use these times to encounter everyone else.

This New Year, consider:

1. How can you work with others in a way that goes above and beyond what you need from them?

2. How can you redistribute work and leadership to highlight other people’s leadership, capacity, and creativity?

3. How can you create a shared vision alongside others that widens the impact of your venture not only on employees, but on your community and even, more broadly, humanity?

Our Jewish lives, let alone our entrepreneurial ones, are not measured by the solo journey of a hopelessly longing self, but by the broader encounter with the unexpected one who arrives every so often and reminds us that being human should mean something and someone more than merely us.

Rarely are entrepreneurs, let alone Jews, awed and changed by what we do for ourselves but, rather, what we choose to give away.

The Accidental Jewish Entrepreneur

This story is the first in a series called the “The Accidental Jewish Entrepeneur“, profiling Jews in unexpected places whose innovations change their communities for good. The first story comes to us from a woman in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:

Diana was 50-years-old when she learned how to create a website. Working with her niece, she helped create her local JCC page, and her commitment to her community only grew. In small Jewish communities, communication can sometimes feel like a styrofoam cup and string. Leaders can be over-extended as they are under-resourced, running the risk of burnout as they try to make something from bupkis.

And then, there’s Diana: The technology maven, who texts and emails, paying attention to every detail, and when her community calls? She answers by learning and delivering exactly what it needs.

Take the JCC website, where Diana responds to many individuals who are looking to learn about the community. Recently, an Israeli family was in touch with questions she was able to answer about the city. There were further emails and then a telephone conversation. And then, a Shabbat dinner with the prospective residents in her city. Who knew that the distance between Waterloo and Israel could be filled by “lishmah”  doing a mitzvah (good deed) for its own sake?

You see, Diana does not have a fancy title and – believe me – she donates every speck of her time and resources in kind. She is not a professional Jew…but I believe she is a vocational one.

With so little, I wonder what could possibly motivate Diana so much? The answer I find is in the details. She writes that the Israeli family from her story decided to move from Israel to the community and are moving there this fall and as I re-read her words, I begin to notice, she never speaks in “I” but always…“we.”

Diana, all the leaders behind her, and all the ones she has helped touch, are grounded in connection. They live out the truth that they are part of the Jewish People and that their knowledge and experience – even the lack of it – constitute outstretched arms, the first points of contact that will reveal what the people on the other end have gotten themselves into, let alone the whole nature of this relationship.

But there’s more: Leaders like Diana not merely extend invitations, but rather, they are inspired to remedy what they don’t know, and they use this as fuel to reach the invisible places and, thereby, make institutions and all the individuals within them aware of and responsive to the unseen. This means filling in the gaps of technology, but it also means challenging the status quo when it puts people painfully out of reach. 

So often, entrepreneurship is bound up in the brand. Pitches, products, and positively prudent leaders who will tell you exactly why their enterprise is right for you. Not because it actually is right but perhaps beacuse they’ve researched it and they “know.” It’s sort of a rehearsed script leadership I like to call “We for Me.”  It looks good on the outside, but inside, it’s bereft of the kind of purpose that grounds people at the center of institutions. Purpose that led Diana at 50 to learn something that would change her small Jewish community forever.

Though she talks of her slow typing, I’m convinced Diana’s wisdom is so advanced, it beyond makes up for it. After all, here she is working to learn what she doesn’t know to create a community where all Jews, those inside and outside its walls, are completely and personally known.

If that authentic “we” is not a recipe for Jewish entrepreneurship, than I do not know what is.