A Zionist kick in the pants

PresenTense restores cultural energy to the Jewish narrative.

young zionists 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)
young zionists 224.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery are both 28, and they are confident that their plan to change the world is quite practical. They have staked their fortunes and the past two years on a straightforward goal: to restore to Zionism the kind of history-shaping cultural energy that the movement's early architects envisioned. The key, they believe, is having the right business model. "At its root, Zionism was a belief that there is a collective potential the Jewish people have to realize, that we're a people who can change not only ourselves, but the world," says Beery. Only with the troubles of the 1930s, he adds, Zionism became preoccupied with physical survival. But the early core of Zionism, as understood by its founders, was cultural. Explains Horwitz, "Much of the work of those people - Berdichevsky, Jabotinsky, Herzl - was a vision of a Jewish state acting in the world. The parts of Zionism that were ignored under the pressure of the Holocaust and history are those parts that will inspire people today." And so the two founded PresenTense, a Jerusalem-based hub for a social entrepreneurship training institute, a magazine on Jewish and Israeli culture, a consulting and education service and a network of entrepreneurs, activists and professionals from around the Jewish world. This motley grouping of initiatives under the PresenTense rubric is no frivolous undertaking, but flows naturally from the pair's analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Jewish life. As with Zionism itself, PresenTense is one part ideology, two parts organization. AT FIRST, Beery and Horwitz speak about the disconnect between young Jews and old Jewish organizations, a barrier that tends to push the youth away from any forms of affiliation and participation in Jewish culture. Both served as national youth movement leaders by age 17 - Horwitz in Betar and Beery in Hashomer Hatza'ir - and have seen the generational gap in affiliation. These unaffiliated youth are not uncaring, they believe, but simply live in a new situation that demands new organization and a new language. When Israeli youth see Israel's strength and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, "including occupying and oppressing another people, they don't understand where we go from here," says Beery, adding that a similar disenchantment afflicts American Jewish youth, who "see the beauties of American liberalism and are becoming disillusioned with the Judaism of their youth." The PresenTense solution to this disillusionment is as new, and as old, as the Zionist impulse itself - to infuse Jewish life with a creativity, both institutional and cultural, that would appeal to a generation growing up in a personalized world with an ever-growing number of options for identification and cultural affiliation. "When PresenTense's mission is completed," says Horwitz, "young Jews will realize their creativity in a Jewish framework," in the process advancing "a mission the Jewish people has had for a thousand years - to spread social justice, build a model of society that eliminates poverty." In returning to the old mission of Jewish life, "we're changing the narrative of what it means to be Jewish." THE GOAL may seem lofty, but the method is surprisingly concrete. Both Horwitz and Beery have spent much of the past 11 years leading organizations and think that proper management is the key to a better Jewish future. This is the purpose of the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism (PICZ), an annual professional development seminar which is an incubator for young Jewish entrepreneurs looking to transform their ideas into practical business plans. In a rented three-story building in southern Jerusalem, the focus for six hot summer weeks is on the feasibility of a wide variety of initiatives, on how to implement Jewish creativity. The initiatives all share two key attributes: the general Zionist outlook underlying PresenTense, and, crucially, "scalability," the ability to expand each successful idea to the broader Jewish community and the world. They range from hi-tech adaptations - JT Waldman's "Tagged Tanakh" is an on-line, hyperlinked version of the JPS Bible that can link to everything from encyclopedias to Google Maps - to low-tech rediscoveries of lost culture, such as New Yorker Chari Pere's Yiddish humor cartoons. Some initiatives are business-oriented, like University of Michigan sophomore Eitan Ingall's student-led fund that connects American Jewish college students to Israel through investments in Israeli companies, while others, such as Bradley Cohen's plan to use popular Israeli outdoor activities as fund-raisers for the world's poorest children, are pure tzedaka. Some are about creativity itself, as with Israeli designer Rafi Gabbay, who wants "to redefine 'Judaica' in both form and content," and wants to know why "all Jewish objects," from kiddush cups to Shabbat clocks, are "aimed at my grandmother's tastes?" Horwitz, a Columbia graduate and founder of several tech-savvy initiatives, gives examples of what these ideas need to become reality. "We teach how to build a solid Web site in three days that serves as a good calling card; how to define why your solution is unique and worth investing in; how to tell what your target market is." Beery, who holds a master's degree in nonprofit management from New York University, adds, "We provide [participants] with case studies on the markets they deal with. We do idea-generation, studying the roots of Jewish thought and Zionist texts. We work on skill-building - how to do a budget that won't get thrown out by an investor, development, public relations, the stripped-down tools" one needs for successful social entrepreneurship. In this mentoring role, they say they are filling an important gap. Most of what they have to teach can't be learned in business school. "Most business and public service schools deal with middle management, teaching how to do corporate finance and reports and such, rather than entrepreneurship," says Beery. The difference? In entrepreneurship, "you have to take risks, to go with your gut, to create something out of nothing. You have to go from zero to 60 as quickly as possible to get an idea off the ground. So it's actually about resourcefulness." THE WORK of PresenTense, now just in its second year, is already beginning to resonate in the boardrooms of large Jewish organizations. Some of America's largest federations, including those in Boston, Cleveland and New York, are interested in Horwitz's and Beery's ideas. Foundations and federations have begun to donate "chairs" at the institute that provides room and board for one aspiring entrepreneur in attendance. "The first two years [of developing a social venture] are all intellectual property, and there's no return on investment, so foundations are nervous about investing in them," explains Beery. "We bridge that. We take a bright young kid with an understanding of what's happening. The federation funds the innovator, we provide the expertise. They" - the innovator and the organization - "then have a relationship." Waldman's hyperlinked Bible project, for example, is at the institute as a chair in technology-enabled education funded by the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. This model for incubating social entrepreneurs is a sign of the times, says Horwitz, when a small amount of seed money can go a long way. "This is the era of everyman entrepreneurs," he explains. "Only recently did it become cheap enough to launch startups for the money you saved in a year of working at IBM. Since Amazon opened up its Web services, the cost of data storage and hardware went down. So organization is not expensive today. When technology is cheap, you get a lot of mileage out of willpower and competence." FOR ALL the creativity, this year's summer institute saw just 15 participants. Is this enough to change the Jewish world from the bottom up? "We're actually not small," Horwitz says, because the organization - or, as they prefer to call it, the "organizing framework" - measures its size and influence very differently. "Our vision is to build nodes on a network all over the world, actual living spaces, where young Jews can pursue initiatives to become an or lagoyim [light unto the nations] until their last dollar, for as long as they need." With a 12-member steering committee, the current and former institute fellows, and 119 members who directly affiliate, including registration for programs, attending lectures and working on projects at the institute, it's quickly becoming "a community of several hundred people who are all highly networked," Horwitz says. "We're running an analysis on how many Facebook friends our members have. It isn't done yet, but we know it's significantly higher than the average Jewish kid," he adds. "In the 1920s these sorts of people talked in coffee shops and changed the world." "It's even more than that," adds Beery. "It's a paradigm of concentric circles. Each of these people impacts hundreds of others with their projects. We teach how to train entrepreneurs, how to develop tool kits for Jewish organizations in the digital age. We have a network that brings together people involved in all our programming to create a rich web of social capital. The idea behind the magazine is to become a narrative structure of the Jewish people, of a new age, a new hope. We're seeding and starting and growing. It's a multiyear, multidisciplinary project." The program may be small, but in an age of on-line social networking, an initiative does not have to start big to gain traction and make a change. AT THE end of the day, the idea behind the institute is simple - to inject energy into Jewish culture, you have to use the new avenues through which culture is communicated. Why did it take a young duo such as Horwitz and Beery to begin to organize in this new way? "Because the managers of Jewish organizations are not entrepreneurs," Beery immediately replies. "Aharon and I are a startup. We're of the people. We're not speaking from above, from the organizational mentality. "We don't claim that the Jewish federations are not important. They're critical. They feed the poor. They maintain Jewish life. But our fear is that the digital age has changed the game, and they can't innovate quickly enough. We provide the space to bridge the gap between the wisdom of the old and the implicit knowledge of the new." People sometimes laugh when Horwitz suggests the federations are a critical part of the solution, he says, "because it's common knowledge that the federations are old and won't add much beyond social welfare. But look at what the federation system could offer if it decided to become serious about innovation. They have the cash, the non-cash resources such as mentorship, accounting, office space. Let's blow this thing up, get to young Jewish people, guide them." In their discussions with federation leaders, the two have found a clear awareness that the federations need to adapt to the new reality of young Jews. "These are not stupid people," says Horwitz. "They understand they need a new way of engaging the next generation of potential investors in the Jewish future to keep up the flow of cash. Everywhere we speak - Chicago, Cleveland - people ask the right questions. We want to provide ideas, resources, paradigms, some level of expertise." The federations' response has been warm, they say. Already a pilot program for midlevel federation executives sees professionals from the Washington, Houston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Boston and Philadelphia federations meeting each month to learn from each other under the auspices of PresenTense. "We're finding that this is the first time anyone brought them together and had them learn from other people," says Beery. HORWITZ ESTIMATES that 30 volunteers work on PresenTense, whether in the institute, the magazine or some other aspect of the enterprise, in any given week. Armed with a committed cadre - a network, if you will - of volunteers, business mentors and speakers behind it, growing interest on the part of federations and growing attention not only from young Jewish innovators, but from older foundations and donors, what's the next step? Simple, they want to conquer Israel. They feel a natural kinship toward the Israeli business world which, they say, understands them intuitively. "Israel's entrepreneurial environment missed out on social entrepreneurship, but it's still the right market for what we do. Israelis understand what we do," says Horwitz. "Our model will resonate with them. It's measurable, it's a startup, so it speaks their business language. When Israelis evaluate companies, they think about scalability, sustainability, a sound business model. The first thing an Israeli venture capitalist asks an entrepreneur is, 'How are you going to take this to China? To the US?' They're always thinking globally. The same applies to social entrepreneurship." "Israel maintained part of its pioneering movement in its cultural DNA," says Beery. "It encourages risk-taking and breaking new ground." They plan to start a pilot program in the fall - "probably a weekly class and some extended programs" - to begin developing Israeli ventures. "There's a growing consciousness that Israel and America are isolated from each other. When you tap into the power of partnerships, the international Jewish 'conspiracy,' you can do more together. At the end of the day," he adds with unabashed enthusiasm, "if we can inspire young Jews to be creative in a Jewish sovereign space, we can burst forth and inspire the nations."