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Jewish Journal

ROI youth magnet for global change

A new generation of social entrepreneurs meet in Jerusalem to discuss ways to apply Jewish values to the task of improving the world.

by Felice Friedson/The Media Line

June 16, 2011 | 10:43 am

“Jewish Summer.” Young, remarkable and ready to change the world.

“I was 25 and never had spoken to a Pakistani delegation before. Mustafa came over to me and said, ‘Would you mind if I sit down next to you and speak?’ We were struck by the fact we were so-called intellectuals—well read—and yet our attitudes in dealing with people were as though we never opened a book.”

That was two years ago, and today Ilja Sichrovsky, savvy founder and general secretary of the Muslim Jewish Conference, and Mustafa are close friends. In 2010, Ilja’s Vienna-based organization brought more than 65 individuals from 25 countries together to promote the idea that with collective faith, peaceful coexistence is feasible.

Ilja represented the electrifying energy of creative and collaborative thought that flowed through the halls of Hebrew University as 150 young global social entrepreneurs came together to share and learn from each other. They are the ROI – an acronym for “return on investment” – attending the sixth ROI Summit sponsored by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.  Justin Korda, the foundation’s executive director and force behind the initiative, explained to The Media Line that participants, which he described as “a small handful of people building community,” are in their 20s and 30s, and are pooled from other organizations, having been nominated by their peers.

During the five-day conference, participants are brought together to network and engage in ideas, according to Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Foundation and steward of its flagship project. “The focus has changed to strengthening the individual and providing talents and skills, as opposed to earlier years of the projects’ orientation,” he told The Media Line. Indeed, those selected for the Jerusalem conference would reap not only the benefits of exchanging ideas with peers, but receiving hands-on coaching in skills necessary to navigate more mundane organizational needs ranging from fundraising to name branding to improving personal speaking abilities and presentations.

A vibrant force of thinkers representing every aspect of Jewish life ranged from Jewtogether.org, an on-line hospitality network that assists Jewish travelers find Jewish homes; to Moishe House, where a post-collegiate can share in a Jewish environment in any of 35 hosting homes in 14 countries; to Yiddish Summer Farm, where “all things Yiddish are hip”; to Machshava Tova, which collects discarded computers destined for landfills and uses them to train unemployed youth-at-risk as qualified computer technicians.

Skill sessions, experimental labs and master classes featured a wide range of topics including art and culture; cuisine; media hi-tech; environment; LGBT as issues effecting Jews as citizens of the world.

Beaming with pride, conference founder Lynn Schusterman viewed the plethora of proceedings and told The Media Line that, “We’re almost 600 strong and in some way, shape or form, each and every one is a success story. It may not be dollars and cents; they may not have a name-recognition organization yet; but they feel better about whom they are, they have more self-confidence and they look at the world differently.”

One recurring theme in speaking to participants was finding ways the global Jewish community can contribute to making the world around it a better place. The idea was reflected in the make-up of organizations selected to attend. Cadena, for instance, is a Mexican organization created to organize immediate support through the Jewish community that is distributed to victims of natural disasters. Executive director Karen Steiner told of her group’s work after a flood devastated Veracruz. “The government didn’t help the little towns because only boats could get there,” she told The Media Line. “We assisted through the local fisherman and delivered 150 tons of food and water.” The group also provided assistance to Haiti.

Stephen Shashoua heads the U.K.-based Three Faiths Forum, an organization that has linked 45 British schools bringing Jewish, Christian and Muslim students together. Opining that his generation has “more of an instinct for fairness than our parents’ generation did,” he praised ROI for “creating a space where nothing is off-limits.”

Tzvika Avnery is co-founder of Israel-based Wisestamp, an email app platform that enables your functional dynamic email signature. Tzvika told The Media Line that with two million installers globally, “one has the option of enabling users to follow a good cause.” Avnery felt the ROI Summit gave him an opportunity to meet one of his biggest niches – the non-profits and projects for good causes. “For me to meet them, understand their needs and leverage their supporters is important from the business perspective,” he said.

On the flip side sits Charlene Seidle, who is directly involved in grant-making as the vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego. As a leading philanthropic adviser, Seidle sees the RIO experience in a different light. “As a funder, I’m besieged by requests. There’s little time to reflect on strategy. We are more responsive and this gathering brings the innovators together and equalizes it.”

Colorado-based Sarah Indyk is a manager at the Rose Community Foundation where she is responsible for three Jewish Life Foundation initiatives. “Do you have a logic model? Will people buy into your idea?” she asks her fellow ROIs during her session entitled, “Evaluation without an Evaluator.”

Laptops, iPads, phones and even antiquated notebooks were all sprawled out across desks while parallel sessions were taught by professionals, most of whom were of equal age to that of the participants.

Jumpstart, through its co-founder Shawn Landres, has changed the global conversation about Jewish innovation primarily through research and advocacy. Landres taught at ROI in 2009, and ran a number of workshops. “I’m here as a participant,” he told The Media Line, “and I’m so honored to be joining the community from that perspective.

Landres was first in line to ask questions of Bob Rosenschein following a master class he delivered. An example of the talent available to summit participants, Rosenschein is the entrepreneurial wizard who created Answers.com – listed among the top 20 sites in the world and recently sold for more than $100 million. He called his session, “Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur.”

“I think it’s brilliant. There is such a diverse group of people here, all talking about action,” said Gadi Rouach, an artist who created the What is Real Creative Energy? video, which will develop into a branding campaign about what Israel and Jewry is today. Another branding expert, Karin Dimant-Rogovsky, who founded Brandtality, returns to the ROI Summit with the distinction of having met her husband at ROI 2007.

Yet, for all of the talk of world-views, reliance upon “Jewish values” is inherent in all of the activities displayed and in the thought process of those assembled to teach and to learn. As well, concern over the place Israel holds in the hierarchy of priorities among the younger generation is rife. Landres, a multi-year veteran of the ROI Summit, suggested that, “there are a lot of young Jews who are becoming social entrepreneurs who are making change in the world and doing so from the basis of their Jewish values…At the end of the day, the burden is on us to show the world that Judaism and Jewish life can bring a positive impact to all of us in the world – to the world around us.” Inwardly, Landres said the other challenge is “to create compelling and meaningful Jewish communities that will engage the 21st Century Jews in ways that connect them to the richness of our tradition.”

With 29 nations represented, none of those assembled in Jerusalem for the ROI Summit was oblivious to being in the region marked by mass unrest and a new set of epithets, including “Arab Spring.”  The Schusterman Foundation’s Korda offered a telling differentiation between the two movements: “Our challenges are different as Jewish people than those living in ‘Tehranical’ countries where human rights are lacking as well as freedom of expression. One of the greatest problems as a result of so much freedom is that in the Jewish world when we talk about revolution we’re talking about transition.” Korda believes that, “These people are not working to overthrow establishment, but working with establishment.”

Jewish communal leaders have been agonizing over the younger generation’s perceived loss of interest in the Jewish state, an issue that is part-and-parcel of the transition Korda spoke about. One reality permeating the ROI Summit was that the new generation does not necessarily reject its parents’ bonding with the modern state, but young Jews do insist on being allowed the ability to process the relevant facts and form independent, informed conclusions. Landres quotes his organization’s research which, he says, demonstrates “a desire on the part of the younger generation to learn; to engage; to see the complexity of Israel from start to finish; to put everything in context and then be treated as adults who are capable of making up their own minds about what their relationship with Israel is going to look like.”

Lynn Schusterman says, “We need a Jewish Spring. And I don’t mean a revolution like what went on in Egypt. But what I think Israel has to do and what I think world Jewry has to do is to be inclusive, not exclusive. And I think they have to welcome anyone who wants to be Jewish to expose them to what being Jewish is; to Jewish education.”

Listening to Schusterman, that the real strategy behind the ROI Summit is a vision that suggests if the attitude is achieved, the individual pieces will fall into place is evidenced by her passionate telling of two stories. The first, her unbridled joy at receiving an email from an ROI alum asking for assistance “for a buddy, not for himself.” The second, the story of a now-successful doctor who attended medical school with a loan from Shusterman’s father. Rather than accept the proffered repayment of the loan, he told the doctor to use the money to “send someone else to medical school.”

From the chemistry apparent at the ROI Summit, it seems likely that Cardin’s prediction of ten years hence is not far-fetched: “a network of some 1700-1800 young activists around the world who understand they’re part of something larger and they’re connected in a way they are really a global force in Jewish life.”

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