by Nicky Newfield
Last summer, at the 2011 ROI Summit, Guy Lieberman had the good fortune to meet Seth Cohen from the Schusterman Family Foundation, and the idea for bringing together young Jewish innovators in South Africa was born. Why was it so appealing to me? It seemed to be serendipitous that the timing of the meeting was at a point when my new innovation, Jewish Interactive, was about to go global.
As young South African Jews, we are relatively isolated from the global community. When my husband and I lived in Jerusalem, we would meet Jewish people from all over the world. It was a constant hub of ideas – a melting pot of innovation, inspiration and passion, and a spiritual home that urged people to convert potential into reality.
At a Shabbat meal or during a walk on the streets, I would hear, and ultimately be engaged in, deep conversation with people debating what is the best way forward in ensuring Jewish continuity. It might come from soldiers saying fighting for Israel would ensure a Jewish future or from the tzaddikim saying that learning Torah will preserve us. It could be that social and business entrepreneurship and innovation will lead the path or would it be preserving and passing on Jewish culture?
When we returned to South Africa, we became less and less involved in these debates – we felt removed from the hub and in a sense cut off from the conversations. I no longer met other like-minded people saying, “Wow! The world needs this. We need every individual who can add new ideas to inspire the next Jewish generation to want to be Jewish.”
But we still believed and so, Jewish Interactive was born as a pilot multimedia program combining traditional Jewish material with 21st century technology. We implemented the program into all the Jewish South African schools, as well as those with a relatively large Jewish population.
It was great, but South Africa is small. I kept wondering, what next? Will an international audience need this? I got on a plane and left my three young children to speak to the leaders of the London Jewish community. I met an educator there who took one look at the program, quit her job and began implementing it into 20 U.K. schools within 6 months. I had to research who and what drives the U.S. Jewish educational world. Again I left my young kids to go speak to the leaders. I had no network, no leads.
But then the networking journey began. I met Seth Cohen at the Schusterman Foundation, as well as Marc Kramer of RAVSAK, who invited us to the North American Jewish Day School Conference. There we connected with a massive network of Jewish leaders with whom we now communicate daily.
Where am I going with this? I am building to my larger point, the one that was the underlying theme of the 24-hour South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering: it’s all about networks.
Through my experience building Jewish Interactive, I realised for the first time the importance of social networking, of Twitter, Facebook, webinars, Skype and the like. I can stay connected from my bedroom or my office. I can be on the pulse of what is going on in the world. I can engage in those Jerusalem conversations and be inspired by other people innovating, all from my corner of the world.
Jewish Interactive helped sponsor the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering to allow other South Africans to enter the world of networks and the conversations taking place within them.
The Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, spoke about innovation from the Torah where creation is the prototype of innovation. Michael Podberezin from PresenTense spoke about creating a sustainable model for social entrepreneurs. Helen Lieberman of Ikamva Labantu encouraged young innovators to “pay it forward” and do positive things in the community.
When Lynn Schusterman spoke, it was to give a sense of importance and confidence to the efforts of the young Jewish innovators whom she believes have so much to add to helping the Jewish people to thrive.
Indeed, a central theme of the 24-hour event was each individual finding what they can bring to the Jewish world that is unique – what exists because you are here? Why do you as a Jewish innovator feel it is important for the Jewish people to thrive and continue? How can you bring your local innovation to the global Jewish community?
We look forward to being involved in many stimulating, passionate global conversations.
Nicky Newfield is the Founder and Director of Jewish Interactive, an innovative non- profit organization, founded in South Africa, that strives to create interactive Jewish programs, utilizing modern technology, to make Torah more relevant, accessible and alive to Jewish educators, children and parents globally. Visit to learn jewishinteractive.net . You can follow Jewish Interactive on Twitter at @JewishInteract.
A version of this article first appeared on JewishInteractive.net.