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June 20, 2012

The Jewcer appeal

A new Jewish crowdfunding platform gives bright ideas a real shot at impacting our Jewish communities

http://www.jewishjournal.com/business/article/the_jewcer_appeal_20120620

Avital Levy gets ready for “Hummus Wars.” Photo by Joshua Plotke

Avital Levy gets ready for “Hummus Wars.” Photo by Joshua Plotke

Make hummus, not war.

That is the optimistic hope of filmmaker Avital Levy, whose work in progress, “Hummus Wars,” chronicles the ongoing rivalry between Israel and Lebanon for bragging rights over the popular Middle Eastern dip.

“The goal for the film is to show that while these countries are enemies, they have so much in common — and to do it through food,” Levy said. “Who doesn’t like hummus? The majority of people in Israel and Lebanon, they love it.”

This passion for chickpeas mixed with sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic isn’t taken lightly among Middle Easterners. Lebanon has long been trying to register hummus as a national food to stop its neighbor from marketing it as an Israeli product. There also have been a series of back-and-forth battles between the two countries to set world records for the largest bowl of the dish. Lebanon set the current mark of more than 20,000 pounds in May 2010.

“A lot of Israelis consider it very much part of the culture,” said Levy, who was born in Israel and now lives in North Hollywood. “[The Lebanese] claim that it’s always been part of their culture and tradition and [that] Israel is just stealing it. It very much parallels the way they talk about land. They say how Israel stole land; now they’re stealing hummus.”

Levy, who attended film school at the University of Southern California, works at a film production company and has been piecing together her documentary on the side since 2009. So far, she has spent about $8,000 of her own money on the pet project. A new, online funding platform that aims to support innovative initiatives benefiting the global Jewish community and Israel could help her finally finish the job.

Jewcer, which launched March 21, facilitates the collection of small pledges from many donors — a strategy known as crowdfunding — to support projects. The premise is that it’s easier to collect $1 from many people than $1,000 from a single donor.

“Our personal mission with Jewcer is to change the way projects get funded in the Jewish community and in Israel — basically connecting people to projects, connecting people to people,” explained co-founder Naomi Leight, who is assistant director for research and publications at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

In the process, Jewcer aims to also strengthen young Jews’ ties to their Jewish communities and Israel through the use of social media, she said, by giving them a stake in the projects and keeping them engaged throughout the process.

Amir Give’on, one of Leight’s four other co-founders and her significant other, said Jewcer was inspired by a speaker for another group that he started, BINA. That organization serves as the young professional division of the Israeli Leadership Council and was created to connect local Jewish-Americans and Israelis with foster programs benefiting Israel.

Jewcer takes that mission a step further, offering a way for people to make a big difference in the Jewish and Israeli communities by appealing to their peers and garnering small donations.

“Today you can give The Federation or any organization $1,000, but when you’re talking about smaller ways of giving, those things are lost,” said Give’on, a native Israeli. “Add to it the fact that our generation is used to connecting to things more on the level of projects rather than organizations … and what you get is a crowdfunding kind of idea.”

The only active Jewish-centric crowdfunding site, according to Leight, Jewcer brought in more than $7,000 in pledges for 11 projects in the first month of its existence. Those projects run the gamut of Jewish life and are based in cities across the United States and around the world. Levy is seeking $8,000 to pay for travel, crewmembers, equipment rentals and other production costs to help complete her film.

Anyone over the age of 18 can submit a project proposal, which must be approved by Jewcer, as long as it has a clear Jewish connection and appeals to young professionals. All projects are funded on an all-or-nothing basis: They either raise the necessary funds by a date set in the proposal or they don’t, in which case the donors’ pledges never get collected. In this manner, Jewcer can help separate the most promising ideas from those that may still need work, Give’on said.

“The way we see crowdfunding is that it actually creates a filter,” he explained. “Maybe that project in the way that you’re doing it shouldn’t exist because you did not get the buy-in of the community.”

Give’on is all about considering the big picture. (His day job is working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on future space-based telescopes designed to discover another Earth-like planet.) In the case of Jewcer, he sees something that’s about much more than raising money; it’s about creating relationships. A private Facebook group for project leaders promotes conversation among them, and those who make pledges become part of a community, too.

Consider Levy’s project.

“She’s now in touch constantly with the people who have pledged to her,” Give’on said. “They’re not done just by the fact that they pledged $5. They may give her advice. They might help her. … She might give them updates. That’s a different way of doing things.”

Levy’s involvement with Jewcer also inspired her to organize a fundraising event — a hummus competition set for early June. (Details can be found on the “Hummus Wars” Facebook page.)

“I always wanted to make a film about Israel and something to do with the Middle East,” Levy said. “There’s plenty of Mideast conflict films that talk about the situation. … We’re looking at the situation in a humorous light [and] pointing to the fact that it’s pretty ridiculous that there’s a war over food.”

With major military operations between Lebanon and Israel in 1982 and 2006, any treatment of the two countries’ relationship is fraught with conflict. But at least some of Levy’s documentary subjects agree with her lighthearted attitude.

“We’ve interviewed some people who’ve said, ‘We wish all wars could be hummus wars,’ ” she said. “People joke about it, and they say if the [next] war is just going to be about hummus and people don’t have to die, let that be it.”


Other local Jewcers

Bibliyoga & the Kosher Sutras
by Marcus Freed
Based on the idea that there is a hidden code for physical meditation within the biblical tradition, the book takes a week-by-week approach, exploring each Torah reading through yoga and meditation. Funding will help produce, distribute and promote the book. http://jewcer.com/project/bibliyoga-kosher-sutras

Comedy for Koby — Israel Tour/June 2012
by Avi Liberman
This comedy tour brings American comedians — Jewish and non-Jewish — to Israel and supports The Koby Mandell Foundation, which works on behalf of families of victims of terror and was established in 2001 after Koby and a friend were murdered by terrorists in Israel. http://jewcer.com/project/comedy-for-koby-israel-tour-june-2012

Confident and Lean @ 13
by Karen Jashinsky
A fitness initiative focused on Jewish girls, the program will integrate social media, technology and fitness to help them gain confidence. Preparations for a large event such as a bat mitzvah make for a great
opportunity to encourage a lifetime of healthy habits, and this project will incorporate healthy eating and exercise. http://jewcer.com/project/confident-and-lean-13
 
Embracing Wholiness
by Alisha Pedowitz
This pro.gram aims to empower Jewish youth who may be struggling with body image, insecurities and bullying by showing them how to build communities that support a whole, healthy sense of self. It will develop and implement a curriculum for Jewish schools and camps that fuses Jewish values with a communal education approach. http://jewcer.com/project/embracing-wholiness

Jewish Animal Welfare Activist Center
by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Focusing on animal welfare activism, kosher veganism and Jewish spirituality, The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute: The Jewish Animal Welfare Activist Center will educate the Jewish community about ethical food choices, create social change on animal abuse issues and provide training for leaders. This will be done through a Web site with videos, classes and more. http://jewcer.com/project/help-launch-the-jewish-animal-welfare-center

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