A State of Her Own

(Here is the article Erin and I published on Tablet, A State of Her Own. The article was published after Bari Weiss, one of Tablet’s top editors and a dear friend, saw a post on Erin’s wall about how we were worried about raising a daughter in Israel. This is what resulted from our collaboration) 

***

If all goes according to plan, this March we’re going to bring a daughter into the world. Specifically, we’re going to bring her home to our apartment on Chen Boulevard, in the center of Tel Aviv, the city we’ve made our home, though we were born in the United States and Canada.

 

Had you asked us six years ago where we dreamed of raising a family, we’d have answered “Israel” without hesitation. But recently we’ve begun to doubt whether we should raise her in the Jewish state.

It’s not the escalating situation with Iran that gives us pause, or the fact that our daughter will one day serve in the army: We decided to live in Israel with full knowledge of the security threats it faces. The reason we are concerned about raising a daughter here is that the government is standing by as war is waged against girls and women.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Orthodox have had the power to decide who is a Jew and how a Jew can live and die by controlling the mechanisms of marriage, divorce, and burial. What this means practically is that the government body that oversees all major life-cycle events—as well as regulating food production—is a religious institution, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

Orthodox religious law is the law of the land: Only a man can marry a woman, only a man can grant a divorce. And because of Orthodoxy’s systemic exclusion of women from positions of power—its refusal to allow women to be rabbis, or to recognize female Reform and Conservative rabbis—the interests of women have been disregarded.

The Orthodoxy of the rabbinate has caused friction in Israel before, but the well-publicized events of recent weeks have brought tensions to a boil. Though some had heard of the gender-segregated public buses now common in cities like Beit Shemesh, the other incidents of discrimination against women and girls came as shock: a 28-year-old woman asked to ride in the back of a public bus, an 8-year-old child called a “whore” and spat on by grown men, and a gynecological convention that barred women speakers. These incidents, carried out by ultra-Orthodox Israelis and tolerated by the ultra-Orthodox leadership, provided the majority of Israelis with clear evidence that the rabbinate’s power has helped create a rotten attitude toward women in major segments of Israeli society.

If this sort of discriminatory behavior were isolated in a few neighborhoods of the country, it would be a shame, but we would hesitate to tell others how to live their lives. Increasingly, though, it’s not isolated, and the discrimination and marginalization of women are tacitly permitted by the state. If we allow this trend to continue, Israel will cease to exist as a strong and vibrant democracy.

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Due to Israel’s coalition-based government system, where coalition partners are given control over ministries in return for voting as a bloc, governments from David Ben-Gurion’s to Benjamin Netanyahu’s have preferred to add an ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist party to their coalition rather than create a coalition without parties such as United Torah Judaism. Such a non-ultra-Orthodox coalition could, in one vote, break the rabbinate’s power. But the major parties are stuck in a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: Each party fears that if it votes against Orthodox control, while the other does not, the Orthodox would ally with the opposition to crush it. So, the status quo persists.

We could not be married in Israel because of Erin’s official lack of Jewishness, despite the fact that we are observant Jews who keep Shabbat and a kosher home. (Our marriage certificate is from the state of Illinois.) Likewise, our daughter could in the future be legally barred from marrying the person she loves in Israel. If the laws continue as they are, the two of us will not be able to be buried in the same state-run cemetery, and our daughter would be excluded from burial in a Jewish cemetery when her life is spent. She’ll be a citizen, just as we are, and she’ll serve in the army, just as Ariel did. But if the status quo persists, she will go from cradle to grave knowing that in the eyes of the government of the state of Israel she is not a Jew.In this context, our daughter will not be considered Jewish by the state. That’s because Erin’s mother had Conservative Jewish conversion in Canada before Erin was born, and because we decided it was insulting to ask Erin, who lived her whole life as a Jew, to “convert” just because a state-employed rabbi decided she is not Jewish enough.

For us, nothing is more painful. Our grandparents devoted their lives to supporting the state and its establishment, and we’ve devoted ours to building Israeli organizations that haveconnected thousands to Israel. But all of that is irrelevant in the eyes of the bearded men who have power over critical aspects of the lives of this country’s 6 million Jews.

This is not what the pioneers who founded this state worked toward, and it isn’t what generations of Diaspora Jews fought for.

***

It is time that the world Jewish community knew about this systemic bias in Israel—and time for Diaspora Jewry to act. It is amazing to think that while American Jews raise money for the state, lobby their political representatives to support Israel, and send their children on Birthright, the rabbinate denies the Jewishness of many of these Diaspora Jews.

This schism between who is a Jew in the Diaspora and who is considered a Jew by the state of Israel will only grow, considering that more than a quarter of Jewish students entering the first grade in Israel this year are ultra-Orthodox, as Dan Ben-David, director of the Taub Center in Jerusalem, has noted. This means that if we want Israel to be a Jewish state for all the Jewish people, as well as a democratic state that respects the individual rights of its citizens, we have a small window to break the Orthodox monopoly on the Israel’s core institutions.

Next year’s Israeli election is the perfect opportunity for the American Jewish community—and the rest of Diaspora Jewry—to act. Diaspora leaders need to demand from the leadership of the Israeli political parties that they make liberalization of the rabbinate a priority. It’s no secret that Israel’s political leaders and Israeli government programs depend on financial and political support from Diaspora Jews.

The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish National Fund, and so on, should give the Israeli government a 90-day window to enact legislation to protect the rights of women and the non-Orthodox. Jerry Silverman, Sheldon Adelson, Howard Kohr, Ron Lauder, and other leaders of powerful Diaspora Jewish groups: Enough with the back-room diplomacy. It is time for Jewish leaders, especially in the United States, to make it clear that no money or lobbying support will flow to the government of Israel, or government-sponsored programs, if the state’s official institutions discriminate against non-Orthodox Jews. No pluralism and no recognition of women’s rights equals no cash and no lobbying support.

Our grandparents, parents, and peers did not work so hard or sacrifice so much to be judged unfit by official representatives of the government of Israel because of the crime of being Modern Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Our women do not deserve to sit in the back of buses, or to be spat on by those who cover themselves in black from head to toe. We need to use the means at our disposal to pressure the state to protect the future of the Jewish people. Our daughters demand it.

CORRECTION, January 9: This article originally stated that close to 50 percent of Jewish students entering first grade in Israel this year are ultra-Orthodox. In fact, the number is 27 percent. The error has been corrected.

 

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The Next Big Jump: From Capitalism to What?

Tents on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard. The Occupation of Wall Street. Hunger strikes in India. Riots in Greece. These are just some of the expressions of angst and betrayal of youth around the world in protests that human history will forever compare to similar 'hot summers' as the riots of 1968. 

But there is something deeper at play here than in 1968. Whether it be the expressions of hope for a better future in Tahrir Square or the expressions of angst of a bleak future that led to the riots in London, to compare 2011 to protests past would be to ignore the deeper elements at play in this current round of protest. This being, primarily, the widespread belief of protesters and Venture Capitalists alike that mainstream Capitalism as failed and that a new model, an unknown model, must arise. These the far-reaching implications can be understood if the grounds for the unrest are reviewed in the context of modern economic history. 

Economic history might not be the sexiest of fields, but it is critical for us to understand the pressures that led to the transition from Mercantilism (the governing mode of trade from the 16th through the early 19th century) to Capitalism (which has survived in the West as the dominant paradigm from the 19th century until the present day, despite being challenged partway by the rise and fall of the Communist effort). While my understanding of economic history has gathered around a decade of rust, I'd say the best vantage point to understand that transition was at the point that economists understood the concept of comparative advantage. 

In 1817, a man by the name of David Ricardo wrote a book called "On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation," that chipped away the last supports holding Mercantilism in place, and prepared the grounds for Capitalism to emerge triumphant. It is sometimes hard to remember that until then, kingdoms controlled the economy of the world, and set the terms by which individuals could work and earn their bread. Those kingdoms believed that what was best for the realm was to protect their local industry, and exploit the resources of other sources outside the kingdom to add to its reserves.

Ricardo noted in this important essay that it does not make sense for kingdoms to do everything. Instead, those kingdoms which were good at producing one thing, such as cloth, should focus on cloth production – and leave the wine production to countries that could do that in the most efficient manner. 

Nowadays, the idea that a collective should focus on doing one thing well and work with others to trade for what the collective needs seems self-evident. But at the time, the thought that a collective need not be independent was groundbreaking. Thanks to this insight, and the insights of others such as Adam Smith, the elites in societies around the world started investing in ventures that would grow their competitive advantage to increase wealth and prosperity. 

Capitalism was born out of this understanding: that it was not the control of trade, but rather access to capital (resources, including money and material), that mattered. Competition was seen as a means to growing the pie for everyone, as investment in firms that had comparative advantages would increase efficiency and effectiveness, generating new resources that could then be reinvested as capital in the creation of new ventures. 

Over time, Capitalism was changed and challenged by a number of ideologies, from the free-marketeers who believed that government should have its hands off of the economy (something the intellectual father of capitalism, Adam Smith, might disagree with), to Communists who believed that the free-market element of capitalism was inefficient and biased and so full state control of capital was best. But the underlying tenant, that resources when put in the hands of firms with a comparative advantage would drive creation remained, and the importance of capital as in physical, measurable material was kept at the core of economic thinking. Where Mercantilism put the interests of the collective's resources and capabilities above all, Capitalism put the importance of resource measurement, collection and allocation above all. 

It is important to understand this transition because it clarifies a fact that is sometimes forgotten in debates about economic policies and pathways: Capitalism is only one in a succession of ideas for how collectives can improve their lot through leveraging their resources to produce new solutions to human problems. And one should not conclude from the current protests that it is time to roll the progress back; instead, one should see the new economy peeking out from behind the signs and the slogans. 

Why now? Because of the speed of trade. The reason Mercantilism was supplanted by Capitalism is that communication technologies and shipping technologies enabled trade to occur at a greater frequency and level of specificity than ever before. Once, a kingdom or collective entity such as a firm would send out a ship to the West, and it would be months if not years until it understood its return on investment. Farmers would labor day in and day out to produce an indeterminate amount of grain, and it was almost impossible to calculate how much more or less grain was needed locally versus in trading nations before the grain would go bad.  Around the 18th century technology emerged to enable individuals to rethink what they were producing and with what resources, and for whom, and to privilege the production of certain goods over others based on their relative return on investment (a rate of return determined by comparative advantage). All of a sudden, cross-border trade was not only possible, it was favorable. Capital could be leveraged across the frontier, and Capitalists viewed their ability to leverage resources for development as a messianic gift to humanity – and, therefore, a God-given right that the collective had no right to limit. 

In the past fifty years, and particularly in the past ten, an analogous evolutionary jump in the speed of trade has occurred, pushing individuals to demand more. The protests in Tel Aviv are the best example so far, although the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be heading in the same direction. In the 1950s through the 1990s, Israeli youth knew that they were burdened by their choice to live in Israel — by the national service, the taxes, the special government deals with unproductive segments of the population. But with borders closed, and hostile neighbors, they took such burdens for granted as a means of survival. Then came the 1990s, and the 2000s, and expanded Israeli trade with the Near East, Europe and Far East, and Israel's economic isolation is a faint dream of the past, as are the justifications for protectionism. At the same time, nearly every Israeli young adult is updated minute by minute about the economic opportunities in other countries, as well as the ridiculously high concentration of wealth that Capitalism afforded the richer segments of Israeli society, thanks to protectionism and lack of government regulation for economic concentration. This led to a sense of cognitive dissonance: young Israelis want to live in Israel, to serve their collective, but most of those same individuals protesting have the education and drive to enable them to immigrate from Israel with minimal burden. All of a sudden, they understood they could get more elsewhere – but they decided instead to fight for the justification to stay in Israel. 

Israeli society wants the youth to succeed, which is why 87% of Israel's population supported the protests and three times the population of Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, took to the streets in early September. In time, once the fires of American partisan politics die down, so too will the American people want the youth to succeed, because it just doesn't make sense for a society, its laws and its military to defend the rights of a minority's minority to control resources that should be available to all citizens. But making adjustments in the current system will not be enough. It's time for an economic evolutionary leap. 

Mercantilism believed that the economy was in service of the state, of the king. The better the kingdom did, Mercantilism proposed, the better the kindgom's subjects fared. Capitalism rejected this notion, and sought to free the productive class from the state, saying that the state will do best if business is able to leverage its capital in the ways of comparative advantage. The citizens of the state, Capitalism suggested, would benefit from innovations in the creative process and gain in public works thanks to increasing amounts of taxation. But we are at the dawn of a new era: an era where we understand that Capitalism may have provided extra fuel to firms, but it was unable to holistically improve the lot of the people. While firms pushed ahead to create new modes of transportation, computation and healing, they also disregarded the commons in toxic run-off, quarterly downsizing, and myopic reallocation of employment policies. And as the people were able to learn more about how their energy as producers or consumers were being misallocated by firms, they demanded more. 

It is too early to tell what the next system will be, but I am willing to make a few bets as to its fundamental tenants. First, the next economic system will seek to free the economy from business, enabling unaligned individuals to contribute their personal energies to collective projects that would provide nearly unlimited energy and creativity for the benefit of the public. We're already seeing bits and pieces of that come through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, and crowdcreation engines such as Quirky. 

Second, the next economic system will demand a non-linear accounting system, one that takes into account the massive growth in stakeholders that any business now has. Previously, a 'bottom line' was gotten by comparing revenue to expenses. Recently, a 'triple bottom line' was proposed to take into account financial, social and environmental impact. The triple bottom line is a good step forward, but I'm willing to bet that we'll soon be taking into account a much more complex set of factors before deciding if a venture is 'worthwhile.'

Third, the next economic system will focus on cooperation and reuse, as opposed to patent walls and litigation. The generation of children growing up using wikis and sharing files will not understand why generations before them were so obsessed with intellectual property control. And yet if we are to incentivize invention, we will need to dream up a much more holistic royalty scheme that will enable inventors to benefit when their ideas are remixed and mashed into new developments. 

Last, we will only be able to fully emerge into the next economic system once we have a global understanding of a firm's responsibilities. The borders of countries that defined the last era are legal fictions that made sense while we lived in a world of limited communication and transportation. Tomorrow's global world will need new controls and supports if we are to keep peace and order, and firms will have to interface directly with that superstructure if humanity's creative potential is to be at the core of governance. 

Have other ideas for what's next for an economic paradigm? Please do share. 

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Israel: Have We Lost That Loving Feeling?

(This article contains the remarks I was planning to share at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly, when I was invited to speak on a panel on the youth's connection to Israel. When, due to budget considerations, JFNA reduced the size of the panel, I decided to turn the ideas into a short article instead.)

Sometimes, I've found that I can get so wrapped up in a problem that I lose perspective on how others have dealt with something similar, or even how I have dealt with the same type of problem in the past. I'm sure others join me in falling for this 'blinder effect,' and in hindsight we wished we were able to learn more from our past experience and get outside perspective. Instead of having to figure out how to get get online or even soothe a relationship that had soured each time all over again just doesn't make sense. But unfortunately, we often aren't able to get that perspective in the moment, and it seems that we humans, and especially we Jews, are less able to gain perspective when it comes to those problems that strike at our very core: our continuity, and specifically how our youth chose to carry on, or not carry on, the values we hold dear.

The issue of Israel has particularly is at the center of current debates about Jewish identity, as it should be, considering that Israel was the central project of the Jewish People over the past century. But often discussions about Israel catch us with our blinders on. So before we address the present day and the relationship or lack thereof that our youth have to Israel, let's try to gain some perspective by looking back a bit to remember the origins of our current relationship to Israel and Jewish identity.

In the early 1920s a new movement started to grow in North America, especially among the young Jews who were of the first or second generation to be born on her shores. Zionism was a rebellious movement that rejected the reigning assimilationist ideology of previous generations of American Jews, and inspired young Jews to imagine themselves as a nation like other nations around the world. This collectivist impulse was as new as nationalism in Europe, and even newer amongst American Jews. Before, Am Yisrael was an abstract entity; in those times, Am Yisrael became a collective actor deserving of a homeland where it may create a foundation for a shared future, just as other people's yearned for self expression following the breakdown of Empires at the dusk of the first World War.

At first, the mainstream of the Jewish community rejected Zionism, and Zionist membership in the 1920s and 1930s never rose above 20% of the general population. But in the century that followed, Am Yisrael went through more as a collective than many peoples go through in a Millenia. First, Jews were given access to the great heights of Western society. Then, fear and loathing of the Jew drove the world to look the other way as six million human beings were led to their deaths in broad daylight. Shortly thereafter, a people without a State for two thousand years resumed sovereignty in their land. Only once the State was created did the Jews of America fully grasp what had transpired. It was the dream of Zionism and the guilt of being bystanders during the Holocaust that led to a movement among American Jewry: a non-Zionist love for Israel that expected every Jew to feel a special connection to the State of Israel so long as their heart did beat.

But in the past 20 years, the generations that grew did not share the same attachment to a State far across the ocean. Despite free and discounted trips to see the Land of their Forefathers, the general trend seems to be in the same direction: away from the type of connection our community leaders and philanthropists feel is the "right" connection to have, which often is summarized as ‘where-ever I stand I stand with Israel.’ Instead, our youth is used to weighing in with their personal opinion on issues of interest, through ‘liking’ comments of their friends to pitching in their own thoughts on anything from the choices their friends make to the policies of their government. Where-ever they stand, it is often in critical distance from others. 

Some claim that the reason my generation, sometimes called Y and sometimes Millenials, do not connect with Israel in the "right way" is due to politics. Stop the occupation, they say, and young Jews will be less dissuaded from supporting Israel. Others say that it is because we focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the conflict or the geopolitical significance of the State, we should focus on the culture, the music, the traditions, and my generation will find our connection there. And yet others fault the education of the youth, blaming community leaders, rabbis, for not being pro-Israel enough, and implying that only the Orthodox retain the righteousness of the Jewish cause.

I think there is some truth to all of these opinions, except for the third, but as they say, a little knowledge might sometimes be a dangerous thing. A person with an incomplete picture might think they know what they are doing, and due to partial information come to the wrong conclusion with the best intentions.

As someone who has lived amongst and observed on a daily basis my peers, through my life and my work to present, the one thing that is clear is that the present is in no way like the past. The very way we identify ourselves in the world has changed. The word 'friend,' that core word that relates who we are through who we feel emotionally close to, has been altered. The way we communicate, share our experiences, and through our experiences describe our identity has been irrevocably changed by the advance of social media.

Our collective communication and collective identification has changed too. In the era where the Arab Spring can sweep across a region overnight, where the Rothschild Tent protests in Tel Aviv can share the same aesthetic markers of protests with Occupy Wall Street across the Atlantic, it should be clear that the youth of today are less connected to a certain space than ever before. Think of yourself ten years ago and today. Ten years ago, how much would you know about the daily affairs of friends and family that were over 150 miles away? Compare that number to the ones you know about today, from status updates and tweets. I'm willing to bet the difference in number is a factor of 10: that you now keep in touch with ten times as many people far away as you did in 2001, when Hotmail and AOL were the leading ways to connect over the Internet.

In this era, therefore, the fundamental way that humans connect with each other is different. Just as the early Zionists were responding to a different paradigm in their time (nationalism), the youth of today are responding to a globalized, networked world that our older generations are only beginning to understand the implications of. And as we agreed previously, since it makes no sense to try and solve each problem as if it is unique – and makes more sense to learn from previous experiences and the experiences of others – a new, more systematic approach is needed if we truly want to strengthen a Jewish identity and relationship with Israel that will last throughout the social evolutionary leap of the 21st century.

While I do not have a definitive idea as to what the right approach to strengthen continuity and the youth's relationship to Israel is, here are a few thoughts as to what the effects of the 21st century will be on our youth and what our community should do or not do if it wants to ensure our youth share our values and live in a better future.

First, it is clear that there is strong cognitive dissonance between the values the Jewish People holds dear and the political situation in Israel. Such a clash is bound to happen when values developed over the two thousand years of powerlessness meet up with the reality of sovereignty and military action. Instead of berating youth for pointing out those contradictions, the community should encourage the youth to explore them, to delve into the complexities of power and politics and to understand the challenges of living as a free people in the world. We should ask more of our youth, exposing them to the conflicting motivations and goals of the parties in the region, so that they can offer solutions and roll up their sleeves to get involved. This means more opportunities to see the underbelly of Israel, and not just 10-day party buses. Just as adults need to make hard choices to keep their families safe, so too do States and sovereign Peoples. Likewise, not every decision an adult makes is the right one. If we cannot approach the Occupation in a mature way, we should not be educating youth.

Second, we need to learn from other Peoples who have been wrestling with the State/Diaspora divide alongside us. The Basques, for example, developed their Euskadi movement at the same exact time as the Zionists, and since then have been through a history almost as challenging as our own. So too have the Irish, the Indian diaspora, the Sikh's and others. Maintaining identity and culture in the 21st century is not a burden we carry alone, and we should share information and learn from others.

Third, and most important, we need to invest in deeper thought about why this is all worth it in the first place. When the Zionists started their rebellion, the mainstream of the Jewish People rejected them, and even demonized them, for what they thought was stirring up trouble. When history justified the Zionist yearning, it became evident that their underlying philosophy and understanding of the world was essential and existentially relevant. Today, however, if you ask our leading communal professionals why being Jewish matters in the grand scheme of things, you generally will get one answer: fixing the world. So how is Israel connected to fixing the world? Why is maintaining a sovereign Jewish identity important if fixing the world is our overarching goal as a community? And is fixing the world the right driving value we should be aspiring to as a community?

We are at the gateway to a new world, and without recognizing what the true challenge is, we will not be able to learn how to overcome it. Instead of getting bogged down in yester-century's system of classification and ideological debate, we need to think both deeper and broader about the issue of Jewish identity and the role the State of Israel has to anchor it. Above all, however, we must remember Simon Rawidowicz's insight: although we may think of ourselves as an Ever Dying People, no People has been able to survive through so many of history's twists and turns as our own. Or to quote the Israeli poet Meir Ariel, if we were able to overcome Pharaoh, we'll overcome this too.  

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Crowdsourcing Support for Innovation

All communities face challenges. Some are lacking high quality, engaging education, others are lacking sufficient access to resources or jobs or clean water. While the scale of the challenges differs, what is clear is that without addressing those challenges a community will never realize its own potential, and better its members so that they may better the world. 

We at PresenTense believe that most communities include the inventive, innovative entrepreneurs who could solve these challenges, but unfortunately our community members do not yet know how to find and support those innovators and help them grow their ideas into solutions. That is why PresenTense developed its Community Entrepreneur Partnership – and why the SpeedInterview, the crux of the application and admission process, is built as it is. 

SpeedInterviewing is the fun, fast-paced core of the admissions process. In the months before the SpeedInterviewing event, local volunteers on the Steering Committee or among the Mentor Community have determined what sorts of start-ups they would like to support, and encouraged their peers and community members to apply. On average from the dozen Community Entrepreneur programs we've run, local programs tend to draw 300% applications (or 3:1 applicants per slot), where the global program tends to bring in 1000% applications (or 10:1). 

This is wonderful news. It means that the community has more than enough entrepreneurs to solve its problems! But due to resource constraints, each program can only support a certain number of entrepreneurs per cycle. How do you chose which ones?

PresenTense has found that the best way to select 'fellows' for the Community Entrepreneur Partnership's training program is to focus on three core competencies as well as the value of the venture idea. Those competencies are: perseverance, interpersonal skill, and commitment to the greater good (what we call, Sense of Duty). Entrepreneurs with a high rating in all three tend to do better over time, on average. 

The way PresenTense suggests to balance the need to find the right ventures to support while also respecting and encouraging all innovators with important ideas on how to better their community's lot is through the SpeedInterview process. 

SpeedInterviews invite all of the ventures that made it to the second stage of the admissions process to a community-wide event, alongside all of the volunteers who have built the program together, and many individuals who will volunteer in the months to come as coaches and mentors. If there are twice as many entrepreneurs applying as there are volunteers coming to the event, we recommend having the entrepreneurs come it two waves, so that there are two events in one. 

The SpeedInterviewing begins when each volunteer is given a set of cards with suggested questions on the front, and a scale to record their thoughts on the entrepreneur's competencies on the back. Volunteers spread out around the room, each under a number to make finding them easy. Once volunteers are in place, the entrepreneur-applicants are told to find a volunteer and introduce themselves. 

The entrepreneur-volunteer pairs speak for 5 minutes, about the entrepreneur's project and about the question the volunteer has to ask. After five minutes, the event coordinator stops the pairs, asking the entrepreneurs to move to another volunteer – and giving the volunteer two minutes to record his or her thoughts on the back of the card they are given. 

And the process is repeated, and repeated, at least four times. This gives the entrepreneur the opportunity to meet a number of the volunteers, and the volunteers the opportunity to meet a number of the entrepreneurs. At the end of the event, the volunteers give their cards to the coordinator, enabling the coordinator to tally the votes per entrepreneur. The top entrepreneurs are advanced to the last round of interviews, and the others are thanked for their time and integrated into the broader community, with the hope that they will continue on their quest to solve the challenges facing their community.

By opening up the admissions process to the broader community, PresenTense hopes some of the connections made at the SpeedInterview will lead to valuable coach/mentor relationships, and also to opportunities for entrepreneurs who the community could not elect as 'fellows' to find likeminded individuals who could help them get their startup going. 

Want to see one in action? Here is a live action report from the Tel Aviv SpeedInterview of 2010. Enjoy:

Questions? Comments? Innovations and improvements? Tell us at fellowships – at – presentense.org or in the comments section below.

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Just got this from a friend

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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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