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June 22, 2011 4:57 pm

The Work of a Young Jewish Innovator

avatar by Naftali Ejdelman

Young social entrepreneurs participate in the ROI summit. Photo: Photo credit: Adi Cohen.

I recently had the honor of attending the ROI Summit in Jerusalem, a gathering of young Jewish innovators from around the globe funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation. Among the participants were writers, activists, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, fundraisers and social media gurus. We were given the chance to network with one another, to learn professional skills from experts, and to discuss important issues facing the Jewish world at large.

I was invited to the summit because of my contributions to the Yiddish-speaking world.  As a board member of the Yiddishist youth organization Yugntruf, I organize Yiddish speaking events and parties for young Yiddish speakers. This attracts people from Hasidic backgrounds, people from ideological Yiddish-speaking homes (like myself), as well as Yiddish students from universities and private classes. This past December, I helped found an organization called Yiddish Farm. Our purpose is to create a Yiddish speaking pluralistic community on a farm in upstate New York. This farm will serve as a resource for the Jewish community where people can be immersed in Yiddish culture, learn about sustainable agriculture, buy local organic produce, and be a part of a dynamic alternative Jewish community.

Understandably, one of my first goals at ROI was to find all of the fellows with a background in Yiddish so that I could connect them all to one another. The wide range of interests and accomplishments of these Yiddish speakers demonstrates the diversity and talent of the group. On the first day, I discovered Mordechai Lightstone, the director of social media and staff writer for, the official website for Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. Soon afterward, I met Adam Teitelbaum, who studied Yiddish in a community day school in the San Fernando Valley. He currently works as the director of Jewish programming for Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity International. Warren Hoffman, who studied Yiddish at the YIVO institute in New York, is a playwright and program director at the Gershman Y inPhiladelphia. Tamar Schlossberg is a social marketing manager that helps implement social media strategies for political academic and art institutions across Israel. Growing up in Antwerp, she became completely fluent in Yiddish. Finally, on the last day I met Karen Steiner, the executive director of CADENA, an organization that engages young Mexican Jews in social aid causes, such as disaster relief and extreme poverty. Karen attended a Jewish day school in Mexico in which Yiddish is taught.

Although I was already passionate about my work before the conference, being chosen for the summit lent a legitimacy to my project in my eyes. From the very first moment, we were treated like important foreign dignitaries representing different ideas for positive change in Jewish life. The keynote speakers, while extremely accomplished, repeatedly told us that they felt humbled in our presence.  This included Daniel Birnbaum, the American-Israeli entrepreneur who turned the decrepit SodaStream company into an international corporation, one of the biggest in Israel. We heard from Natan Sharansky about the feats he accomplished by challenging the Jewish establishment of his day, which initially opposed his political actions, and then took credit once the movement became successful. Bestselling author Marina Nemat described her resistance and suffering at the hands of the Iranian revolution in her youth. She underlined the power of ordinary people to do achieve great things. Finally, we heard several times from Lynn Schusterman herself, the main benefactor of ROI. Lynn stressed that the challenges we face in the Jewish world require new innovative responses from our generation. All of the speakers genuinely seemed to believe in our potential, and described feeling honored to be in our presence.

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Indeed, it was connecting with the passionate and brilliant participants themselves that was most valuable at the conference. On the first night, as I sat down to eat dinner with some of my fellow ROIers, I commented about how much I liked the food. All of a sudden, I was bombarded with critique from all sides about what was on my plate. I wasn’t sure if this was a joke or if they really had so much to say about the food (I really liked it). My confusion must have shown on my face, because someone nearby whispered to me “looks like you ended up at the foodie table”. Indeed I did. Jeff Yoskowitz, Director of Operations and Marketing for Negev Nectars, helps market and distribute sustainably grown food in Israel to American consumers, while promoting agri-tourism in Israel. He is also working on a book about pork in Israel. Michal Ansky, who has a cooking and food culture show in Israel, is the founder of seven farmers’ markets across the country, and is working on a cookbook about eco-gastronomy. Yonatan Sternberg, an International Trade Specialist who builds connections between Israeli businesses and other businesses in the Middle East, happens to also be a wine and culinary writer. Although much of their conversation was over my head, it was fascinating for me as an observer to peek into their world.

Starting a new organization from scratch is extremely difficult. Building credibility and connections takes tremendous time and effort. Through the ROI Summit, I became connected to an international network of passionate and creative Jewish leaders. This network provides opportunities for collaboration and connections for me and my organization. It gives legitimacy to my project in the eyes of donors and partner organizations despite it being extremely new. I am deeply thankful to Lynn Schusterman and ROI for helping make it easier for young Jewish leaders to actualize their visions for the Jewish world and beyond.

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