Sitting in a room in a small building in Yad Binyamin in the Nahal Sorek region, 19 leaders from all sectors of society gathered to discuss myriad ground-breaking social initiatives.
The leaders – CEOs, social activists, a university professor, Conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, women, men – represent the true face of Israel’s society.
The diverse group came together as part of Co. Lab, a cutting edge incubator, developed as a first-of-its kind signature initiative of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, one of the largest Jewish philanthropic organizations in the world.
Co. Lab, short for “collaborative laboratory,” aims to bring together social leaders from all sectors of society in an effort to create social change.
“This lab that we have created is a safe haven where leaders from different cultures can get together and create a dialogue and collaborate – we call it the ‘dialogue of doing,’” Roi Mekler, head director of Co.
Lab recently told The Jerusalem Post.
Mekler who together with Co. Lab chairwoman Susan Lax and Marcia Riklis, chairwoman of the UJA Shituf committee that initiated Co Lab, have closely accompanied the participants on the nearly 200-day initiative – which saw them (also called “fellows”) get to know each other and their respective communities.
Ultimately, the fellows divided themselves into small diverse teams in which they began brainstorming and developing collaborative initiatives to address the challenges of Israeli society. The group was also introduced to cutting edge methodologies and top experts in innovation.
“Our fellows sit in the most key positions – they all have organizations and communities standing behind them and many also come with their own resources,” he said.
“Many initiatives don’t necessarily require [Federation] funding, they just require the trust to develop – and Co. Lab provides the space for them to do so.”
Now in its second year, the new group of Co. Lab fellows has flown to New York City this week to present their joint projects to the UJA-Federation of New York.
Among this year’s collaborative initiatives include: developing a virtual center for the representation of marginalized communities and minorities in the media; an initiative to develop “shared spaces” to link small settlements or towns and the nearby municipalities; and an initiative to provide people with disabilities the tools, skills and knowledge to make their own decisions regarding their lives.
Maha Abu Katish, director of the high-school education department in east Jerusalem at the Jerusalem Municipality; Janet Shalom, regional commissioner for Jerusalem and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission of the Labor and Welfare Ministry; and Dr. Yasir Hujeirat, CEO of Alfanar, a company dedicated to the employment of Arabs in Israel, teamed up to create “Zchutcha” (Your Right).
Zchutcha, aims to identify students at risk in east Jerusalem and prevent them from dropping out of school while simultaneously providing them with basic skills and knowledge of their rights to enter the workforce.
“We want to, on the one hand, give them the tools to integrate into the workforce – language, knowledge of their rights – and at the same time expose them to the idea of a better future and to understand the importance of education, ” Shalom told the Post.
“With my background we didn’t really have the right to education – we had to work, but my parents gave me the opportunity to dream and look ahead,” she said. “To go into a community whose doors are closed for them and to open a small window of hope for education and for integration into the workforce can dramatically change people’s lives.”
According to Abu Katish, 40% of students in east Jerusalem drop out of school as 70% of the residents live under the poverty line.
“It begins with students dropping out of school who go into the workforce at less than standard because they don’t know their rights and then they get married, have families and it becomes a cycle,” she explained.
“I see myself as responsible for these students and we must find solutions for this very difficult phenomenon in east Jerusalem,” she said. “If our solution will make even the smallest impact it will be incredible.”
Last year, following the meeting in New York, the Federation decided to seed NIS 900,000 for four of the joint initiatives.
However, Mekler explained, in addition to the official collaborations some 60 social initiatives developed between the participants.
“The 60 projects – we called them ‘collaborations along the way’ – are no less important than the Co. Lab initiatives themselves,” he said.
“We discovered an organic collaboration going on in Co.
Lab that creates connections between different organizations and communities leading to this massive impact,” he explained. “We were very surprised that our first cycle fellows still meet together and are still collaborating and initiating new projects.”
As such, this year, the federation decided to expand the initiative and provide grants for organic collaborations that have already developed throughout the process.
“We have this successful formula now that we want to expose,” Mekler said, adding that Co. Lab has received “tremendous feedback” from the government, as well as social and business sectors that want to replicate the initiative.
“Co. Lab is not only this physical lab, but it is also a message that promotes organizations in the field,” he said.
“The message is spreading because it works and we hope more and more people will be exposed to the ‘dialogue of doing’ method – and that it will continue to grow.
“It is no longer our own but it is for every person who wants to collaborate and develop a social initiative and we will be more than happy to share our knowledge that we have developed over the past two years,” he added.