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At the 2013 ROI Summit, talking about sex and shirts

The annual Jerusalem gathering gives 150 international young Jewish out-of-the-boxers space to think — and connect

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Schusterman's ROI community is also based on the ideals of Jewish innovation. (photo credit: Adigital Studio)
Schusterman's ROI community is also based on the ideals of Jewish innovation. (photo credit: Adigital Studio)

In walking into a conference for young Jewish leaders, one doesn’t expect to spend much time speaking about pheromones and the dreaded boob gap. But with the 25-year-old Schusterman Philanthropic Network funding the ROI Summit, the unexpected is de rigueur.

The 2013 Summit, June 9-13, included some 150 Jewish “entrepreneurs” — whether in the social, ideological or material senses of the word — from 37 countries, ages 20-40.

Now in its eighth cohort, the annual Jerusalem gathering brings together a diverse group of international out-of-the-boxers for a packed five-day series of workshops, presentations, impressive catering and, primarily, networking. The atmosphere is charged, conversations are intense and promises to keep in touch are seemingly genuine.

Though some come from far-flung places such as Rwanda, Morocco, Romania, and China, the bulk of the participants are from North America or Israel (and sometimes both).

There are many “career Jews” — those who work in some aspect of Jewish life — but also present are a critical mass of Jews who have careers outside of the Jewish world.

Judith Prays getting ready for a Pheromone Party. (photo credit: courtesy)
Judith Prays getting ready for a Pheromone Party. (photo credit: courtesy)

Los Angeles resident Judith Prays comes from a social dating experiment she calls “Pheromone Parties.” Newly religious, the 26-year-old (who is in a committed relationship herself) is obviously conflicted when speaking about her scheme from her secular past.

“It’s not unkosher,” Prays says over the buzz at a lunch break, “but it’s not exactly in line with the Jewish philosophy of dating.”

Pheromones are essentially chemical secretions (think odors) that signal a variety of physiological aspects, including sex. Interestingly, says Prays, women are more perceptive of genetic quality, whereas men are sensitive to a woman’s availability.

As explained on the website in a short video documenting a party, this is the basic idea: Guests sleep in a clean, white, cotton T-shirt for three consecutive nights to capture their unique odors and bring them in ziplock bags to the party. Bags are labeled pink (women) or blue (men) and assigned a number.

Bags are placed on a table where guests can smell their contents throughout the party. If a guest finds the smell attractive, he or she can take a picture with the bag at a photographer station. Pictures are projected as a slide show on the wall at the party and if guests find their bag holder mutually attractive, this is the green light to talk to them. At the end of the party, a Facebook album is created and all of the pictures are tagged so guests can connect after the event.

‘At parties you see someone hitting on a girl and then choosing her shirt. I’ve seen cases where someone chooses an ex’s smell’

The results? Not random, says Prays. “At parties you see someone hitting on a girl and then choosing her shirt. I’ve seen cases where someone chooses an ex’s smell.”

Prays has given these parties since 2010, in LA and New York. Her social experiment has drawn broad mainstream media coverage from India to Australia, including a very funny segment on the Colbert Report where her idea was given a Wag of the Finger.

But with her new respect for religion, Prays, a UCLA grad who works in film production and multimedia, has noticed her colleagues shy away from talk of faith. Today she would rather explore God’s “brand” — and is doing market research. Which is why she came to ROI.

“I’m hoping ROI will make it more concrete. It’s a really safe space to talk about big ideas,” says Prays. (Though as one candid participant said in a small group, “Along with ‘continuity’ and ‘peoplehood,’ ‘branding’ is a word that needs to be lost from our vocabulary.”)

Rochelle Behrens (photo credit: courtesy)
Rochelle Behrens modeling The Shirt. (photo credit: courtesy)

Another entrepreneur who is making good on her Big Idea is Rochelle Behrens. As an upwardly bound professional in DC politics, Behrens, like most women in her field, felt she needed to look the part and wore a “uniform” of tailored button-down shirts and suit pants around the office.

But with the buttons come the dreaded boob gap that makes so many professional women feel insecure in their appearances. She, like many, became a safety-pin expert.

But Behrens, who says she has always been “obsessed by looking at seams,” realized that by merely changing button placement, she could bridge the gap and stop wearing shirts that “undermine her credibility.”

As CEO of The Shirt by Rochelle Behrens, the 30-year-old is well aware of the power of branding. After her 2008 eureka, she left politics in 2010 and formally launched the company with Oprah in 2011. And now, “we’re ready to scale,” she says confidently.

With patented dual-button technology, Behrens with her team of 12 “shirt ladies” is running a thriving Internet sales business selling The Shirt, and recently, The Shirt Dress, for $130-$200.

Not cheap, but for the 28- to 45-year-old modern, urban professional woman, it buys more than clothing, says Behrens. “It’s about empowering women to do their best. It’s about asserting control over masculine clothing and feeling feminine.”

So what brings her to ROI? “My Judaism has definitely informed the business,” she says and laughs that after generations of tailors in her family, her parents became professionals and wished that she do so well. “And here I am, back in the shmatte business.”

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