Monthly Archives: August 2011

Five Years and Who Knows What’s Changed

(This article was written upon request for eJewishPhilanthropy, and appeared there first.)

In the summer of 2006, I was set on pitching a new magazine in what I was told would be a four-day global contest for funding held in Jerusalem. The magazine, of course, was PresenTense, an effort a few friends of mine and I started in December of 2005 in Morningside Heights of Manhattan. After months of unsuccessful attempts to raise $10,000 for the first print run and distribution, we ended up printing it ourselves. For $5,000 that a friend and mentor gave me, and around $5,000 that lived on as a (growing) debt on our credit cards, we printed 1000 copies of what we called ‘Issue Zero’ and tried to leverage these copies to gain subscribers and advertisers. We saw this conference as our chance to shine. It brought 120 innovators from around the world and was structured around a series of pitches and workshops supposedly culminating in a grand prize. We were determined to win that prize and scale PresenTense. The conference’s very name convinced us that we were a shoe-in: it was called ROI120, indicating the Jewish community’s desire to get a return on its investment, and was, at the time, a joint effort between the Schusterman Foundation, Taglit-birthright israel, and the Israel Democracy Institute.

We did not win the contest, and from what I understand there was no cash prize at the end. But thanks to the conference, many of the relationships that built PresenTense were formed or strengthened. To go through the list of individuals who attended ROI120 that first year and now are leading major efforts in the Jewish community would be to tempt the consequences of forgetting a name, so I’ll leave others to list them. But what is clear to me is that ROI120 of 2006 concentrated a surge of creativity and innovation that impacted a certain strata of the global Jewish community, and will impact the Jewish community for years to come.

Five years later, what’s changed? A lot. And very little. Some of the larger, more clearly identifiable elements can be sorted out: out of ROI120 came Schusterman’s ROI, which celebrated its sixth summer conference this June bringing 150 young adults from around the world to a four day conference; following ROI120, PresenTense grew from a magazine to a global network of twelve community entrepreneur accelerators launching 155 new social ventures thanks to the efforts of thousands of local volunteers; following ROI120, the Forest Foundation’s Moishe House project received sufficient funding to grow independent, supporting dozens of apartments for young Jews across the world to help them host local events; following ROI theJewschool and Jewlicious led blogosphere rose and fell in influence, and comparable programs such as the Professional Leadership Project, Heeb, Guilt & Pleasure and others rose and fell in prominence (and out of existence). In other words, if you look to the top of the waves, some of the main actors caught the wave, others did not.

But beneath the surface, I have no clue what has happened. And that is because there isn’t enough data out there to make any good comparison to know whether the Jewish People are any better, or worse, than they were five years ago.

For example, I can tell you that ROI brought together approximately 120 young adults together five times over five years, and 150 one year, to total approximately 650 (adjusting for repeat-attenders) individuals who networked together in Israel over a four day stretch. I can tell you that PresenTense has produced 14 separate issues of PresenTense Magazine due to the efforts of approximately 800 volunteers and the interest of tens of thousands of readers, and run 12 fellowship programs that have engaged approximately 80 young professional volunteers per program and helped 160 community entrepreneurs launch 155 ventures. But I can’t compare the impact of the two in any meaningful way, nor can I find enough data on the former efforts of PLP, KolDor, Guilt & Pleasure, and others, to provide any meaningful conclusions as to whether our efforts have been worthwhile. There is no way to do a cost-benefit analysis, no way for a responsible manager to decide whether the efforts she is working on is “worth it,” or whether she should adjust operations to increase the impact of the dollars under her disposal.

There is a reason there isn’t good data: the capital markets (i.e. philanthropists and foundations) do not demand it, and the organizations, therefore, cannot justify allocating scarce resources to provide it.

As a result, we’re almost a decade since the Jewish community become obsessed with ‘young adults,’ with the ‘un-movement,’ since tens of millions of dollars flowed to organizations such as Heeb, JDub, KolDor, PLP, and so on, and we have absolutely no clue whether we’re better or worse off than we were before.

This irrational behavior is hurting, and not helping, the Jewish People. This is similar to the situation Rob Eshman describes in his article, Count-Less, concerning the lack of data for Los Angeles, “What we are working off are guestimates that are, at best, almost two decades old and, at worst, self-serving and self-aggrandizing.” This lack of information – about the size of the population we’re addressing, about the impact our efforts have had on the population, about how our efforts line up against each other – have caused those excellent professionals among us to get fed up seeing philanthropic investment flow to silver tongued efforts with no base of sustainable support.

If we want the next five years to improve on the previous ones, we need that data, and we need it now. We need to know, for example, whether the dollars spent per participant on birthright israel have the same long-term effect as the dollars spent per (non-birthright alum) PresenTense fellow. Or how Paidea’s JPropel ranks versus the efforts of KolDor. This is essentially a Jewish requirement: we are commanded to have unified weights and measures, and yet our community has not taken the small step of setting up standards and goals, metrics and measurements, done by any political party apparatus who is in it to win it. If we want to grow the members of the Jewish People as bad as the Republicans or Democrats want to grow their party base, we need to measure whether our efforts have any effect.

Five years have passed, and many of the individuals I met at that first ROI120 remain my friends. Five years have passed, and many of the community entrepreneur fellows I met summer after summer, and year after year through PresenTense, remain my heroes. But five years have passed, and with them the blood, sweat and tears of dozens of young community entrepreneurs trying to build a better future for our People, and I cannot tell you if we are any closer to our goal than when we started. We owe it to those activists who toil day in and day out to build a rational capital market, to reward based on measured impact, and to invest in efforts that on comparison are furthering the goals of our People: strengthening our core, building ties of mutual responsibility, and extending the impact of our values through fixing the ills of our world.

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JPropel and Renewing the Jewish Communities of Europe

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Over the past two weeks, Schusterman’s @Roicommunity, Paideia and the Pears Foundation’s JHub have run a series of activities in the classic Swedish university town of Uppsala under the banner of the Summer of Change. @aharonhorwitz and I were privileged to represent PresenTense there as ‘staff,’ Aharon as part of the incubator, and both of us together at JPropel teaching a few workshops over the course of a few days, from our PTSchool series, and leading a text-based learning on business model development for social enterprise.

It was a fun affair. For a little under a week, approximately 50 individuals, the majority from the various countries of Europe, hung out, ate, drank and took boat rides whose main outcome was the bonding of young activist Jews across the world, and an understanding that deep skillbuilding is out there thanks to short ‘taste of’ sessions held in the afternoons. Although it was their first year involved as a lead partner (as far as I understand), Schusterman’s ROI spirit was strongly felt: there are few organizations I know of who muster the resources to help generally-bootstrapped Jewish social entrepreneurs feel invested in as individuals. They sure know how to throw parties. We had a bar night the first night, a boat ride down the river to a palace the second, and a club night on the third of four nights (one of the four nights was shabbat). Even I, in my old age, had fun.

But what I left with is a hunger for a positive vision for Jewish life across the world, one that I do not think exists currently. My fear is that Jewish investment in building communal capacity in Europe has been either a reaction to the Holocaust, or a desire to ‘scale’ the innovation happening in the United States of America or Israel to the Old World. What has resulted is a bifurcated community in Europe, where the Old Guard is given the keys to the Jewish communal pot, and incentive to keep control close to their chest. In the other corner the New Guard is learning from their generation around the world and trying to start new ventures, but with external funding and therefore without the buy in of their institutions or their key community members.

One example is the story I heard about the Polish community of Krakow, where the wonderful work done by Beit Krakow has been stiffed by the local Orthodox community. Although the Orthodox community (numbering about 70 men from what I understand) has ownership over the seven local synagogues left over from old Krakow’s thriving community, they have preferred to sell the buildings than give them over to the progressive, young Beit Krakow crowd who would use the centers as a ‘Hillel House’ of sorts for students in Krakow University. It’s a sad state of affairs when Jews would rather lose their heritage than have another approach to Jewish life thrive.

Generational divides have always existed, so the cynical might say that the conflict that exists in Krakow (and in other communities in a similar position) is to be expected, but there is something different in the challenge Jewish Europe is facing: without a vision for how Europe can once again have thriving Jewish communities, neither side will be willing to make the hard compromises needed to build the infrastructure for renewal. Individuals can disagree on how to interpret a vision but share the same vision, and as the Zionist movement taught us, they can still build a thriving State despite their disagreements. But in Europe there seems to be a vacuum of vision that is leading to a ‘winner take all’ mentality of power politics, which will deny victory to anyone, let alone the Jewish People.

I must admit that at first I didn’t care that much; while Jewish communities have risen and fallen throughout history, the Jewish People has survived. But my wife made a strong point: our greatest successes as a People have come through diversity, through our ability to internalize multiple approaches and borrow from many styles of thinking and action in order to overcome the formidable obstacles in our path. It’s thanks to this expanded view of the world that we thrived even as we fought to survive. Losing a European presence will cut off a critical point of view in this next century. Building a strong European Jewish community will mean increasing the opportunities the Jewish People have to fulfill our mission of fixing the world.

Thanks to ROI, JHub and Paideia, I feel I have a much better understanding of this challenge – but one that has a long way to go before I could imagine a solution. Due to this conference, and the community dynamics I learned exist in most European cities, I have grown more concerned than ever about the future of European Jews. Because I have yet to hear an approach, or see a venture, that can fix the ‘us versus them’ dynamic. I’d like to think that the PresenTense Community Entrepreneur Partnership, with its emphasis on building a volunteer community locally and only then supporting community entrepreneurs, could help this scenario. But I have little data to indicate there are enough professionals locally in the cities that are most in need to fill the Steering Committee or Mentor Community ranks. But that said, I have a lot to learn, and I know other organizational efforts (such as the European Union of Jewish Students) do exist and might have a venture that will transform this part of the world for the better.

What I am sure of is that for the Jewish People to thrive in the 21st Century, a strong, innovative and responsive European Jewish community must thrive. I believe these communities need to be built from the bottom up, and cannot be built on a base of foreign funding. International conferences and Jewish studies seminars are a good start but they are not enough, as turned on young Jews returning to innovation-blocking communities will opt to emigrate to greener pastures in the USA and Israel, further rotting European Jewry. Those of us non-European activists and professionals should focus on building the resource-gathering capacity in communities where there are weak federated giving systems, and convincing local strongholds that they need invest in their next generation if European Jewry is to survive into the 22nd century. I very much hope Schusterman’s ROI, Pears’ JHub and Paideia will continue opening the eyes of organizational professionals to these challenges, and that through such encounters a new vision for Jewish life in Europe will emerge.

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Shabbat Shalom from Uppsala

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@aharonhorwitz and I are attending the Paideia Jpropel summit, a gathering of Jewish activists from across Europe and the world co-sponsored by Schusterman’s @roicommunity and the Pear’s Foundation Jhub. It’s fascinating to meet folks from communities across Old Europe, communities that have a total of 300 members, where some people are afraid to identify as Jewish not because of contemporary anti-Semitism but because their grandmother still believes the Germans may be back. Of course that’s not the case for everyone or every community, but I’m stuck on those communities where identity is a challenge.

A question I’m left with has to do with the future of these myriad communities: what could be the best case scenario for Jews in Europe? How could the community’s continued existence be a benefit to the Jewish People and the World?

It is somewhat fitting that this weekend coincides with the parasha (torah portion) Ve’Etkhanan’s recital of Shma Israel. Can a dispersed People operate in a coordinated fashion?

Shabbat shalom from Uppsala.

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