In 2010, Judith Prays, a 26-year-old multimedia expert from Long Beach, created a great deal of buzz (CNN, Time, “The Colbert Report”) by inventing Pheromone Parties, a matchmaking experiment based on scent.
Three years later, Prays’ quirky creativity, coupled with her newfound passion for Judaism, garnered the UCLA film school grad a coveted place at this year’s ROI Community Summit, a Jerusalem-based happening that brought together 150 young Jewish entrepreneurs from 38 countries for five intensive days of networking, innovating and fun beginning June 9.
A project of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, ROI — which stands for Return on Investment — has been likened to a leadership incubator. It is “creating the next cohort of Jewish leaders,” No’a Gorlin, the organization’s associate executive director, told the Journal. “By virtue of being part of ROI, the next generation will be more connected and inspired by one another.”
In an interview with Haaretz, ROI Executive Director Justin Korda said that the Jewish philanthropic world “invests so much in large-scale outreach programs and organizations like Hillel and Birthright. And now, here we are creating a community which is made up of the return, or the products, of that communal investment in Jewish leadership.”
ROI, founded in 2005, offers its participants micro-grants that enable them to develop ideas and projects that can be of value to the Jewish community. If the project is a bust, Gorlin said, “It’s not a failure if they learn from their experiences. We want to see these young people create Jewish continuity in their own image.”
For the Jewish world to have any hope of galvanizing its largely unaffiliated younger generation, she said, it has to engage them on their terms and appeal to their life experiences.
“One of the things we’ve observed is that when they build a community, it may be a physical community or it may be an online community. It’s a new kind of Jewish communal life, and it’s a challenge for the established Jewish community,” Gorlin said.
The conference offered a modern take on traditional leadership sessions geared toward millennials — those in their 20s and 30s. There were icebreakers, mentoring sessions, peer-led activities, lectures by leading educational and social entrepreneurs, a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the Israel Museum and a whole lot of goal-oriented shmoozing, generally in the vicinity of food.
In a takeoff on speed dating, participants (120 first-timers and 30 veterans of previous summits chosen to foster a sense of community) were given just a couple of minutes to hone their pitch before moving on to the next person.
At a poolside barbecue in Jerusalem, Prays, one of several Californians taking part in the summit, said the experience strengthened her resolve to “brand” God as a way to connect to her mostly secular peers. If you walk into a room of millennials and mention the word God, “it shuts down conversation, and I’m trying to figure out a way to address that,” said Prays, who is now religiously observant and living in Pico-Robertson.
Prays said many in her “demographic” are “repulsed” by the establishment organizations that have long played an important role in reaching out to young Jews. She’s currently creating a crowdsourcing platform and community for Torah commentary, chavruta study and Torah-inspired art.
Evan Bregman, 27, director of digital media at Electus, a production studio founded by former NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman, echoed Prays’ assertion that to reach young Jews, the Jewish community has to understand what interests them and why.
In the 21st century, he said, most young people get their news via social media, which floods them with information and opinions. One of Bregman’s goals is to work with day schools and other institutions to teach students how to distinguish between various news sources.
“They should know the difference between an article in the Jewish Journal and a blog, and between a credible blogger and one [who] isn’t,” he said.
Failure to know the difference can lead to everything from cyber-bullying to brainwashing, he warned.
While students learn how to interpret pieces of literature in school, Bregman noted that “they’ve never been taught how to interpret” what they see on Facebook or Twitter or a blog post.
Although Sarah Passe, 29, a Los Angeles-based business development executive at Creative Artists Agency and a rising star in the digital entertainment industry, knows all about networking, she said meeting ROI veterans strengthened her longtime resolve to help BBYO, the Jewish youth organization where she serves as an adviser, to expand its alumni outreach.
“BBYO has an incredible alumni network, but it’s not tapping in the way it could,” Passe mused out loud. “I’d like to tap into the many BBYO alumni working in entertainment via personal relationships and shared experiences.”
Michelle Collins, a 31-year-old comedian, writer (VanityFair.com) and producer (Kathy Griffin’s talk show) in Los Angeles, expressed the belief that she was getting more from the conference — her third ROI summit — than she was contributing.
“I’m very selfish. I work for me,” Collins said with a smile just before taking part in a talent show presented by ROI participants in a hotel space transformed into a performance venue. Laughing out loud but barely skipping a beat after she spilled a glass of red wine all over the clothes she was set to perform in, Collins said she accepted the invitation to attend the summit more for personal than professional reasons.
“I don’t come to make money or to fundraise or to make business connections. For me, coming here is probably the most religious thing I do. I don’t go to synagogue. It’s a way for me to connect to Jews, and I do make people laugh.”
Despite the many light moments, the participants said they had come to the summit to leave their comfort zone.
“It’s been a safe space to talk about scary ideas,” Prays said. “It’s very intense, but worth it.”