The value of storytelling

ROI Community members talk about how stories can be a force for social good.

ROI COMMUNITY members Ivona Gacevic and Eric Gershman pose at the organization’s annual summit in July (photo credit: SNIR KAZIR)
ROI COMMUNITY members Ivona Gacevic and Eric Gershman pose at the organization’s annual summit in July
(photo credit: SNIR KAZIR)
Ever since humans first gathered around a campfire to stay warm, stories have entertained and informed us. Two ROI Community members share how they are giving traditional storytelling a 21st-century spin.
Sarajevo-born Ivona Gacevic has created a tourism app spotlighting sites of Jewish heritage across Europe, while Eric Gershman, a manager for strategy and business development at Disney, helps get virtual reality productions off the ground.
Together, they are two members of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s ROI Community – a network of young professionals from around the world dedicated to executing their own particular version of tikkun olam.
Preserving Jewish life across Europe: Ivona Gacevic
When users are able to download “Jewity” later this month, they will access a treasure trove of stories about Jewish life in Europe. Set to launch in November, Jewity will have a plethora of information about Jewish sites across four European cities: Belgrade, Rome, Vienna and Prague.
“I started collecting stories of people and going through archives. I found stories about my [family’s] own [past] in Serbia that I never heard of,” Gacevic said.
“I discovered a bunch of beautiful stories that would get lost if I didn’t collect them. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t know about this, there must be others who don’t know as well.’”
Gacevic was inspired by her late uncle, the president of a small Jewish community in Croatia. He, too, was an avid collector of Jewish memorabilia and stories. Like many Jews from the Balkans, Gacevic grew up secular, but her uncle was her one dominant connection to Judaism and her main motivation to keep Jewish history alive for the next generation.
Her ties to Judaism were also cemented during the Yugoslavian Civil War. “My father is from Montenegro and my mother is from Croatia. I was born in Bosnia and grew up in Serbia, where there was a huge identity challenge,” she explained. “The Judaism aspect is what kept me sane during the identity politics of the region. While people were dividing themselves as Serbs and Croats, I knew I was Jewish. It was the only place where I could say, ‘This is where I belong.’”
So, nearly two years ago, Gacevic decided to compile all her information – pictures, stories and artifacts – into a tourism app.
“Almost every major city in Europe was built on Jewish heritage. You can’t avoid it when walking along streets in Europe. But the thing is, most people don’t know that,” she said, adding that the app focuses on Jewish life from the beginning of the 20th century to World War II, when most Jewish communities were wiped out.
Given that Jewish populations in most European cities are on the decline, Gacevic felt time is of the essence when it comes to preserving the memory of Jewish sites for today’s digital era.
“We understood that if we don’t do this or find a way to motivate people to preserve their own stories, then stories will be lost everywhere,” she said.
Jewity eliminates the middle man and allows tourists to have access to Jewish sites in the palm of their hand – literally. There is no need for a tour guide, as the app ushers users through a walking tour of a city that they can utilize at their own pace.
At each stop, the app provides a personal story behind each site.
“We’re not just guiding you through a city and telling you who built what, we offer a story behind each location. We tell you about a family that lived in a certain spot or the story behind a musician that played on the corner,” she said.
Although the tours focus on Jewish life, Gacevic insists non-Jews will have much to appreciate in the app as well.
“This is for Jews and non-Jews. We’re basing ourselves on everybody. We spoke to younger and older people and they are really fed up with traditional tourism – having just a tour guide run through the basics of a city,” she explained. “We’re offering an experience to make you fall in love with the city and to know its soul.”
The power of sparking a conversation: Eric Gershman
Eric Gershman may spend his days as a hardworking member of the Disney team, but he’s a theater nerd at heart. During our conversation, the strategy and business-development manager at the Disney Theatrical Group spoke passionately about his love for the arts – specifically theater.
“I think at its very heart, theater can hold a mirror up to society. You can see a play or a musical and often relate with the characters that are on stage,” he said. “If you’re watching a movie or TV in 2D, you’re only seeing a part of it, but when they’re live and in front of you, you can really feel the emotions.” He marveled at theater’s ability to “spark a conversation.”
At Disney, he’s trying to do just that – make not only the audience, but his peers think critically about important issues of the day.
“One thing that is a mandate of my position is to help the company think more thoughtfully about the issues that we’re facing,” he explained.
This is extremely critical for the global company, whose impact is felt worldwide.
For Gershman, Judaism and the power of storytelling are intertwined.
“Judaism is so embedded in storytelling. It’s how rabbis teach the scripture. It’s how students learn, it’s stories with meaning and morals. Theater does the exact same thing,” he said.
“There are a number of people who find ‘religion’ when they are in a theater. They fall in love with the theater if they’re in trouble or having a bad day. While I’m not always in shul or at a Shabbat dinner on Friday night, if I’m in a theater, it often feels the same way,” he said.
As for his time at the ROI Summit – ROI Community’s annual flagship gathering – last summer, where he got to meet other key players in Israel’s cultural scene, he’s grateful for that experience.
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the best culture minds in Israel,” he said. “I’m amazed that the Ministry of Education asks that every student sees five cultural events a year. Art in education and seeing art is so important to the development of a society that can appreciate the arts.
“The idea that from kindergarten onward, kids are getting access to different forms of art every year is a really powerful thing and I wish more countries were like that,” he added.
It was also an eye-opening experience for Gershman, whose previous visit to Israel was 10 years ago on a Birthright trip.
“I feel like I was a child back then. I was just seeing and being guided, so I didn’t meet many Israelis,” he recalled.
“Being at ROI, where a third are Israelis from all different sectors, has opened my eyes to the diversity of thought in Israel, how culture plays a role. When I leave Israel, I will have an unbelievable warm appreciation, respect and love for the culture here.”
This article is written in cooperation with ROI Community.