In a conference room at Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, 120 young Jews from around
the globe are brainstorming the major challenges facing Israel today – and
coming up with innovative solutions.
Working in groups, these young
social entrepreneurs, businesspeople, community leaders and artists share their
thoughts in real-time, via a large screen linked up to their
“What can we do when ‘being Jewish’ is no longer cool?” asks one
group. “How can we get Jews to understand the Holocaust when most survivors are
gone?” ponders another.
This community brainstorm is just one session of
the annual ROI Summit, a four-day collaborative think-in about the future of the
Jewish people, organized and run by young Jewish innovators from over 20
different countries, including Israel.
ROI – which stands for Return on
Investment – is the brainchild of philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, who
established the movement in 2006 in partnership with the Center for Leadership
Initiatives and Taglit-Birthright Israel.
The ROI Community’s aim, says
Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Foundation’s Israel branch, “is to
introduce young Jewish adults from around the world to the crucial issues of the
day, and to encourage their involvement in the building of vibrant Jewish
communities globally and locally.”
For the past five years, the annual
ROI Summit has been a gathering place for fresh new talent, offering newcomers
to the movement four days of brainstorming, inspiration, collaboration and
merriment. This year’s summit differs in that it has reunited “veteran” ROI
community members to take stock and celebrate the fruits of the first five
And what fruits – this year’s 120 participants are the brains
behind a dazzling array of initiatives, for-profit and philanthropic, Jewish and
From trendy media start-ups in Israel and Jewish community
groups in Belarus and Bogota to a volunteer-run cafe in Copenhagen that donates
its profits to Africa and a Holocaust project for non-Jewish high school
students in Uruguay, ROI is inspiring young Jews to change the world.
get a flavor of some of the fantastic projects inspired by ROI, Metro caught up
with four Israeli ROI Community members and summit participants. Two native-born
Israelis and two North American olim, these four very different people are each
responsible for a unique venture.
First up is Jacob Shwirtz, a Brooklyn
native who made aliya seven years ago. From his home base of Tel Aviv, Shwirtz
co-manages Definitely Something, a web strategy and development agency providing
“I love my life here in Israel,” he
Has being located in Israel made it difficult to build
relationships with international clients? Quite the reverse, Shwirtz says.
Definitely Something’s Israeli headquarters has proved a big turn-on for some
“A lot of people think of Israel as the number-one country for
start-ups,” he explains. “So corporations like MTV and Zagat Guides are
interested in the fact that we can tap into the very best talent this country
has to offer.”
Music giant MTV, according to Shwirtz, was attracted to
Israel’s hi-tech and entrepreneurial know-how. Shwirtz and business partner
Asael Kahana helped the music channel team up with innovative Israeli start-ups
IN ADDITION to providing web content and consultancy for
social networking projects, Definitely Something is using its web knowhow to
develop spin-off ventures.
Shwirtz’s latest start-up, Tweetbookz,
combines trendy microblogging service Twitter with that far older form of
written communication – the printed book.
Twitter users communicate via
tweets, brief messages of just 120 characters. Tweeting is incredibly popular –
Binyamin Netanyahu does it, as do Barack Obama and Britney Spears. While tweets
might appear ephemeral, with Tweetbookz they can be preserved forever – in the
form of a beautiful, personalized hardcover tome.
high-quality coffee-table books containing up to 200 of a person’s most recent
tweets,” explains Shwirtz. “We’re printing the Internet, combining the virtual
world with the real world.”
Tweetbookz has garnered considerable
international popularity, with Twitter itself supporting the
Many people, including a number of celebrities, have signed up
to print their own book of tweets.
But why would anyone want to purchase
a beautifully printed, hardcover keepsake of instantly forgettable instant
messages? “It turns out there’s a lot of nostalgia for things that happened just
five minutes ago,” laughs Shwirtz.
What part has ROI played in all this
innovation? An ROI Community member since 2003, Shwirtz says the movement is an
extremely positive and powerful force.
“ROI is an inspiration,” he says.
“It’s just an amazing opportunity to connect with young Jews from all around the
world, to learn from and collaborate with each other, to share and exchange
From Tweetbookz to comic books, our next ROI community member is
Dorit Maya-Gur, a graphic artist from Holon. A comic book artist and graphic
novelist, Maya-Gur uses the medium of the cartoon to address some of the most
serious issues facing Israel.
Frank Zappa once quipped that a real
country needs a beer and an airline, but Maya-Gur believes a homegrown
is also an important expression of national identity.
The USA has
Spiderman, Batman and countless others; the UK has Danger Mouse and even
Cayman Islands have Fishkar, but for a long time Israel lacked its own
crime-fighting comic-book hero. Past Israeli superheroes include Uri
Sabraman, a former cop and Shoah survivor whose daring battles with
scientists were published in The
in the late 1970s.
THANKS to Maya-Gur, the Israeli superhero lives again. She has created
Falafelman, a Tel Aviv local who fights terrorists, anti-Semitism and
Ahmadinejad and confronts the legacy of the Holocaust. Zapped with
following a mysterious laboratory experiment involving falafel, our
a ginger-haired, unshaven, beer-bellied, computer-game-playing,
This is the quintessential 21st-century Israeli hero? “I asked
myself, what would an Israeli superhero look like,” laughs Maya-Gur. “Is
pin-up, a muscular tough guy? I really didn’t think so.”
more antihero than superhero – but Maya-Gur wants regular Israelis to
“Falafelman is an underdog, he’s overweight, he doesn’t have
any weapons – just falafel,” she concedes. “But after all, what is
natural resource? It’s our brains.
Israelis are smart. So Falafelman’s
strength is his intelligence.”
Falafelman is hilarious – and in a very
Israeli way, it is this humor that allows Maya-Gur to broach serious
the terrifying anti-Semitic rhetoric disseminated by Iranian leader
“Comics give me a voice, they allow me to talk to kids about
difficult topics in a way they can understand and access,” explains
And it’s working, she believes: Israeli schoolchildren have told her
use Falafelman as a way to understand what happened during the
Falafelman’s rotund persona came to life during the three years
Maya-Gur studied comic book art at the prestigious Joe Kubert School of
and Graphic Art in New Jersey. Her time abroad changed her perspective
“In America, I saw Israel from the point of view of an outsider,
and I felt so proud of this country,” she relates.
Now, Falafelman is
even helping Diaspora Jews understand Israel – in Chicago, schools are
comics to teach Jewish kids Hebrew.
HOW HAS the ROI Community helped
Maya-Gur in her endeavors? Like Shwirtz, Maya-Gur is keen to express her
excitement at being part of this initiative. ROI, she enthuses, empowers
like herself – young, creative, talented, brimming with ideas – to get
support and resources they need to turn their dreams into reality.
ROI people are creating community projects that are not just for Israel
Jewish world, but for everyone,” she says.
Jeremy Hulsh is a third ROI
community member whose work is benefiting the wider community as well as
and the Jewish world.
Hulsh, who worked for Sony Records and Columbia
Records before his aliya from the US eight years ago, is the founder and
executive director of Oleh! Records, an independent, non-religious,
record label. Its mission is to help Israel’s young and talented
succeed in the cutthroat world of the global music industry.
explains that ROI helped him to get his idea off the ground. ROI members
apply for small grants to give new projects a boost. Oleh! Records
from this seed funding.
“I had an idea about what I’d like to change,” he
relates. “I want to promote alternative and new music, to showcase
artists abroad. I was so inspired, I poured my time, money and heart
For Hulsh, running a non-profit organization was a new
experience. Oleh! Records is a true labor of love.
“There’s no profit for
us in this,” Hulsh points out.
“We’re a registered charity. It’s a purely
Musicians signed with Oleh! Records include hardcore
rockers Midnight Peacocks, punk band Useless ID, hiphop, jazz and funk
Coolooloosh, reggae, trip-hop and nu-soul artist Karolina, and urban-pop
Onili. All these musicians have non-exclusive contracts with Oleh!
they can collaborate with multiple labels and distributors and reach the
possible global audience.
These musicians don’t play traditional “Jewish”
music – and, in fact, not all of them are Jewish.
“We represent Arab
artists too,” adds Hulsh. “We’re challenging people’s ideas about
Instead of klezmer, we’re giving them hip-hop.”
In promoting Israel’s
hottest new talent, Oleh! Records is showing the world a different face
Israel, that of a young, cool and talented country that is part of a
“It’s a huge dream for Israeli bands to succeed
internationally, and we’re making progress in leaps and bounds,” says
Young Israeli artists are now playing at venues across Europe and
the US – mainly to mainstream audiences. This month, for example, young
at Slovakia’s Pohoda music festival greeted Israeli pop singer Onili
“These artists are living, breathing ways that people can
connect with ‘cool’ Israel,” concludes Hulsh.
“Everybody wins – the
artists get international exposure, Israel gets to show the world a cool
and audiences abroad get to rock to totally awesome music.”
ROI community member is also building bridges between young Israelis and
Maya Abarbanel is executive director of Parallel Lives, a
non-profit that connects Israelis with Diaspora Jews.
“We want Israelis
to see how Jewish people live in other parts of the world,” says
how it affects their Jewish identity.” Like Maya- Gur, Abarbanel’s
of Israel changed when she spent an extended period abroad. Abarbanel
husband worked as Jewish Agency emissaries in the small Jewish
Akron and Canton, Ohio.
“In Ohio, I learned about myself, about Judaism,
how the Diaspora community sees Israel, about being a minority,” recalls
Returning home, Abarbanel decided she wanted to spread the
ideas she had learned. She began working for a charity that brought
Jews to Israel and quickly realized there was a real need for Israelis
understand Jewish life abroad, too. Thus Parallel Lives was
Parallel Lives organizes a yearlong series of personal meetings
between small groups of Israelis and Jews from overseas. The Israeli
participants are IDF soldiers from elite units.
“These people will really
influence Israel in the future,” explains Abarbanel. “We match them with
Jewish adults in Israel on long-term volunteer programs.”
meetings, Israeli and Diaspora Jews explore differences in Jewish
Israeli soldiers are very patriotic, lots believe all Jews ought to live
Israel,” she explains. “Some feel that Jews in America just donate money
that’s the end of their connection with Israel.”
DIASPORA JEWS have many
questions about Jewish identity in Israel. “Pluralism is a big issue for
they ask why Israelis don’t understand that there’s more than one stream
Judaism,” Abarbanel adds.
The Israeli soldiers also spend time in a
Jewish community in the US – a very powerful experience, says
“It changes their lives forever,” she smiles. “One soldier
wept when he saw how people prayed for the IDF in the synagogue. He saw
these people care deeply for Israel.”
Diaspora participants in Parallel
Lives have included rabbinical students from the US Reform Movement’s
Union College. “They spend a year in Israel as part of their studies,”
explains. “Parallel Lives helps them ask tough questions about pluralism
ROI has played an essential role in supporting Parallel Lives.
Recently, Abarbanel received a seed grant to help facilitate a new
project – a
community program for Parallel Lives alumni. Interaction with ROI
members has also been instrumental in providing incredible motivation
encouragement, she believes.
Abarbanel, Shwirtz, Maya-Gur and Hulsh
represent just a fraction of the ROI Community’s deep well of talent and
enthusiasm, and the huge diversity of projects and enterprises these
members are undertaking. But everyone in this rich network of talented
people has at heart the same goal – to change, inspire, improve and
Israel, the Jewish world and beyond.
“ROI brings together people from all
over the world and helps them transform their ideas into action,”
Abarbanel. “This is our fifth summit, and I really believe that in the
years, ROI will change the Jewish world.”