A place to give birth to the Next Big Jewish Thing

This week’s ROI summit in Jerusalem was a summer camp-like hive of youthful exuberance and a serious network of Jewish ingenuity

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

An ROI mega brainstorm (photo credit: Studio Adigital)
An ROI mega brainstorm (photo credit: Studio Adigital)

The casual observer at this week’s ROI summit in Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza Hotel may have thought he’d stumbled upon a glorified Jewish summer camp for 20- and 30-somethings. But beneath the free backpacks, icebreakers and veneer of youthful enthusiasm, what the 150 young global innovators here were tasked with finding couldn’t be more serious: the next big Jewish idea.

Founded and funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in 2005, this seventh annual summit again strove to be a hive of networking, sharing and learning, with high-profile speakers such as Doug Ulman, CEO of Livestrong, who gave a talk on the importance of social media, and big-name, small-group leaders such as model/actress Noa Tishbi and “Start-Up Nation” author Saul Singer.

In the spirit of staying cutting edge, ideas were not just discussed in person or on paper. This year’s summit featured an ROI community forum on IdeaScale,  a mini crowd-sourcing program where teams of at least three participants submitted social action ideas. The fifty submitted ideas were then commented upon and “liked” by the entire ROI global community. The idea garnering the highest number of votes this year was “Adopt A Safta,” which pairs new immigrants to Israel with lonely Holocaust survivors.

Participants hailed from such far-flung places as Uganda, Brazil, Poland, Australia, and of course there was a large percentage from Israel and the United States. As Jonathan Bouzali from Mexico City said abashedly, “I’ve never even heard of some of these countries, let alone that there are Jews there.”

Jonathan Bouzali, general producer at Kuter Production Company. (photo credit: Studio Adigital)
Jonathan Bouzali, general producer at Kuter Production Company. (photo credit: Studio Adigital)

Bouzali, 27, is a good example of a participant who began as a Jewish community professional, but who has moved on in his career while still feeling connected to his former occupation. He began at 14 as a guitar teacher, and by 18 became the general director of Music-House, which is housed at the JCC and teaches music to some 200 Jewish youths a year and employs 15 full-time teachers. Currently he is an acclaimed producer at his Kuter Production Company.

In both capacities, teacher and musician, he’s made an impact on his community, and currently he’s using his expertise as a producer to help Jewish social action groups create video clips that will get their feet in the doors of major donors.

As a business school graduate, Bouzali was not at the summit primarily to learn from the experts but rather to network. These days he’s doing as much pro bono work as possible, and has utilized ROI micro-grants to help cover some production costs.

Most of the participants in fact are not compensated for the projects they were there to present, relying instead on day jobs in (hopefully) related fields to pay their bills while leaving their ideology untainted.

Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek. (photo credit: Studio Adigital)
Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek. (photo credit: Studio Adigital)

Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of the Modern Orthodox social action group Uri L’Tzedek, is one such example. Were it not for the beard and kippa, when the earnest Hart began talking about the ethos behind his organization, one might have thought he was a Reform rabbi calling for Tikkun Olam, an impression that is not lost on the 30-year-old.

Five years ago, Hart and his co-founder, Shmuly Yanklowitz (who was recently named one of America’s 2012 Top Rabbis by Newsweek) saw a big gap in the Orthodox world in that there wasn’t a serious body that was pressing for change on moral issues and injustices.

“When we began, an Orthodox rabbi friend said to me, ‘I don’t know about the name: Tzedek is Reform.’ And I said to him, ‘That’s why we’re doing it.'”

Getting even more serious, Hart said, “The Torah cannot be confined to the beit midrash, to the synagogue. It is a desecration of God’s name, this perception that Orthodox Torah values don’t have anything to say about justice.”

Uri L’Tzedek, which has only three full-time employees to staff its offices in New York and Los Angeles and survives on a shoestring $300,000 annual budget, has had several recent successes, notably, the Flaum caterer case in which immigrant workers weren’t paid properly for overtime hours, and the organization’s Tav HaYosher movement, which grants an “ethical seal” to kosher restaurants.

Currently the organization is taking on a new injustice issue, solitary confinement in US prisons, an unusual choice for a religiously observant Jewish organization whose population is not highly represented in the prison system. “We were founded to awaken consciousnesses,” said Hart simply.

A bit closer to home, Hart said Uri L’Tzedek will soon be offering courses on business ethics. “We want the frum community to adhere to the highest standards of yashrut (honesty).”

And that idea, and learning how to implement it, is what brought him to the ROI summit this year. Who knows, maybe he’s onto the next big Jewish thing already.

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