Jewish social entrepreneurs connect in Jerusalem

ROI summit brings together Diaspora and Israeli Jews to compare notes on new initiatives.

Ariel Levinson 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Ariel Levinson 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Ariel Levinson looks like the last person you would expect to run a yeshiva, the traditional Talmudic academy in which holy texts are studied by the fervently religious.
With his long hair, bare head unadorned by a skullcap and contemporary casual clothing, he is the very image of a secular Jew.
However, the former Jewish studies teacher is the head of a yeshiva, the Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In his institution, Jewish Israelis can connect, he says, to their religious and cultural roots without any expectations of religious observance.
Between Sunday and Thursday, 140 young Jews from Israel and 36 countries across the Diaspora gathered in Jerusalem for the annual Return On Investment Summit, an initiative of the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
The Summit, according to organizers, is aimed at “empowering its members to take an active role in shaping the Jewish future” and through collaboration, achieving “the support and space they need to help turn their ideas into dynamic new avenues for engagement in Jewish life.”
Sociologists such as Samuel Heilman believe that Jewish identity is increasingly becoming a “symbolic ethnicity” – at least in North America. Therefore many Jewish philanthropists look to the younger generation for new and meaningful expressions of Jewish identity, beyond traditional organizational affiliations and paradigms.
“The ways that the members of this community are connecting people with Jewish life run the full spectrum [of] inserting Jewish content or Jewish ideas or Jewish values into pragmatic ideas [and] into organizations,” ROI Community executive director Justin Korda, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The idea of ROI, he said, is to provide a follow-up for the kind of young Jews who come home energized from Birthright trips, but do not find enough opportunities for engagement within the existing communal structure.
“We went the world over, including Israel, to identify people who had been on programs like Birthright who came back to their home communities and they didn’t find exciting ways to get involved in Jewish life. Federations, Hillels or whatever organizations failed to get people excited about Jewish life before they went on Birthright wouldn’t all of a sudden succeed in being exciting because of 10 magical days in Israel. We tap into that handful of people,” he said.
Aside from several kinds of grants awarded to participants, he said, most of what his organization does it facilitate networking between budding Jewish leaders.
ROI is a “community of reciprocity,” Korda said. “Its about the members supporting each other.”
Levinson agreed, saying, “The issue of estrangement from Judaism is also a problem in Israel.”
He started his yeshiva, he said, due to what he called the “the alienation of the young generation in Israel from Jewish culture.”
Levinson said that because of ROI he is now in talks about sharing his model of Jewish engagement with the wider community through a partnership with the Moishe House, “a pluralistic international organization” running 56 houses around the world aimed at creating communities of young Jews.
Another summit participant trying to create a new model of Jewish engagement was Jared Jackson, who said he is trying to improve the perception of multi-ethnic Jews within the larger community.
As an African American Jew, he told the Post, he is often faced with prejudice both from the black and Jewish communities.
His new organization, Jews in All Hues, is now connecting with what Korda termed “the full spectrum” of Jewish initiatives, from “Israel advocacy initiatives to environmental activists to Jewish education and new media and you name it.”
These new initiatives, Lynn Schusterman told the Post, affirm her “ huge belief in the next generation and the Jewish future. I believe in giving them an opportunity to grow and build on their strengths. It’s important to have the courage to think outside the box.”