A different kind of Middle-Eastern summit

120 young Jewish movers and shakers get together in Ramat Gan to change the world.

ROI 311 (photo credit: Adi Cohen)
ROI 311
(photo credit: Adi Cohen)
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 laptops.
“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 years.
And what fruits – this year’s 120 participants are the brains behind a dazzling array of initiatives, for-profit and philanthropic, Jewish and non-Jewish.
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.
To 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 strategic consulting.
“I love my life here in Israel,” he grins.
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 companies.
“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 like Metacafe.
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.
“Tweetbookz are 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 product.
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 ideas.”
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 superhero is also an important expression of national identity.
The USA has Spiderman, Batman and countless others; the UK has Danger Mouse and even the Cayman Islands have Fishkar, but for a long time Israel lacked its own caped, crime-fighting comic-book hero. Past Israeli superheroes include Uri Fink’s Sabraman, a former cop and Shoah survivor whose daring battles with neo-Nazi scientists were published in The Jerusalem Post in the late 1970s.
NOW, 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 superpowers following a mysterious laboratory experiment involving falafel, our superhero is a ginger-haired, unshaven, beer-bellied, computer-game-playing, TVwatching everyman.
This is the quintessential 21st-century Israeli hero? “I asked myself, what would an Israeli superhero look like,” laughs Maya-Gur. “Is he a pin-up, a muscular tough guy? I really didn’t think so.”
Falafelman is more antihero than superhero – but Maya-Gur wants regular Israelis to identify with him.
“Falafelman is an underdog, he’s overweight, he doesn’t have any weapons – just falafel,” she concedes. “But after all, what is Israel’s 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 topics like the terrifying anti-Semitic rhetoric disseminated by Iranian leader Ahmadinejad.
“Comics give me a voice, they allow me to talk to kids about difficult topics in a way they can understand and access,” explains Maya-Gur. And it’s working, she believes: Israeli schoolchildren have told her that they use Falafelman as a way to understand what happened during the Shoah.
Falafelman’s rotund persona came to life during the three years Maya-Gur studied comic book art at the prestigious Joe Kubert School of Comics and Graphic Art in New Jersey. Her time abroad changed her perspective on Israel.
“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 using the 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 people like herself – young, creative, talented, brimming with ideas – to get the support and resources they need to turn their dreams into reality.
“At ROI people are creating community projects that are not just for Israel or the 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 Israel 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, nonprofit record label. Its mission is to help Israel’s young and talented musicians succeed in the cutthroat world of the global music industry.
Hulsh explains that ROI helped him to get his idea off the ground. ROI members can apply for small grants to give new projects a boost. Oleh! Records benefited 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 Israeli artists abroad. I was so inspired, I poured my time, money and heart into the venture.”
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 cultural venture.”
Musicians signed with Oleh! Records include hardcore rockers Midnight Peacocks, punk band Useless ID, hiphop, jazz and funk stars Coolooloosh, reggae, trip-hop and nu-soul artist Karolina, and urban-pop diva Onili. All these musicians have non-exclusive contracts with Oleh! Records so they can collaborate with multiple labels and distributors and reach the widest 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 Israeli music. 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 of Israel, that of a young, cool and talented country that is part of a global music culture.
“It’s a huge dream for Israeli bands to succeed internationally, and we’re making progress in leaps and bounds,” says Hulsh.
Young Israeli artists are now playing at venues across Europe and the US – mainly to mainstream audiences. This month, for example, young crowds at Slovakia’s Pohoda music festival greeted Israeli pop singer Onili with great enthusiasm.
“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 image, and audiences abroad get to rock to totally awesome music.”
Our fourth ROI community member is also building bridges between young Israelis and the wider world.
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 Abarbanel, “and how it affects their Jewish identity.” Like Maya- Gur, Abarbanel’s perceptions of Israel changed when she spent an extended period abroad. Abarbanel and her husband worked as Jewish Agency emissaries in the small Jewish communities of Akron and Canton, Ohio.
“In Ohio, I learned about myself, about Judaism, how the Diaspora community sees Israel, about being a minority,” recalls Abarbanel.
Returning home, Abarbanel decided she wanted to spread the ideas she had learned. She began working for a charity that brought American Jews to Israel and quickly realized there was a real need for Israelis to understand Jewish life abroad, too. Thus Parallel Lives was born.
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 young Jewish adults in Israel on long-term volunteer programs.”
Through these meetings, Israeli and Diaspora Jews explore differences in Jewish identity. “The Israeli soldiers are very patriotic, lots believe all Jews ought to live in Israel,” she explains. “Some feel that Jews in America just donate money and 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 them, they ask why Israelis don’t understand that there’s more than one stream of Judaism,” Abarbanel adds.
The Israeli soldiers also spend time in a Jewish community in the US – a very powerful experience, says Abarbanel.
“It changes their lives forever,” she smiles. “One soldier wept when he saw how people prayed for the IDF in the synagogue. He saw that these people care deeply for Israel.”
Diaspora participants in Parallel Lives have included rabbinical students from the US Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College. “They spend a year in Israel as part of their studies,” Abarbanel explains. “Parallel Lives helps them ask tough questions about pluralism in this country.”
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 community members has also been instrumental in providing incredible motivation and 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 community members are undertaking. But everyone in this rich network of talented young people has at heart the same goal – to change, inspire, improve and advance Israel, the Jewish world and beyond.
“ROI brings together people from all over the world and helps them transform their ideas into action,” concludes Abarbanel. “This is our fifth summit, and I really believe that in the next five years, ROI will change the Jewish world.”