A Call for Jewish Innovation Month

In a seemingly parallel world to the political messes of recent months, a new world is being born right before our eyes: a world born out of the visions of young Jewish social entrepreneurs around the world, over a hundred of which will be launching their ventures this June. So I hereby propose: let us declare June Jewish Innovation Month. If the upcoming events in the month of June go smoothly, the reports of a disconnected, past-tense Federation and JCC system will prove to be unfounded.

Starting on May 31st in Boston, six communities across North America – and five others worldwide – will host a total of eleven Launch Nights to showcase the 117 new Jewish social ventures that PresenTense partners have catalyzed over the past year. These 117 social ventures, in fields as diverse as education, social action, environmental programs and Israel education, will join the 153 community oriented start-ups PresenTense (which, full disclosure, I’m proud to be an employee and founder of) has helped launch over the past five years – 113 (or 74%) of which are still going in the present day. Many of these Jewish social entrepreneurs past and present, and the volunteers who helped them, will meet at the Schusterman Foundation’s ROI Summit in Israel – yet another reason that June is a natural for Jewish Innovation Month.

Among the 117 new ventures launched this year by the Federations in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Cleveland, from the Jewish Center in New York, the JCC of Chicago, the JDC in Moscow, and in Israel Threshold, the Tel Aviv Municipality the Jerusalem Foundation and with the World Confederation of JCCs, are ventures such as Lila Kagedan’s Sulam, a new model of K-5th Jewish education, which partners with community resources to provide a high quality experience at an affordable cost; HeartWork by Yael Mendelson, a toolkit for schools and youth groups that reinvigorates the spiritual connection to Judaism through the creation of collaborative virtual Siddurim (prayer books); Arkady Baranovsky‘s venture launched by the JDC’s Moscow Kaet Fellowship, which uses theater to rehabilitate former Jewish inmates, which has already got off the ground and is supplementing the important work the JDC is doing to serve this distressed population. All of these entrepreneurs and ventures can be browsed at this link, here.

But while the new start-ups will get the majority of the attention, the story behind the story is how a diverse set of community organizations around the world have taken advantage of PresenTense’s Community Entrepreneur Model to engage over 918 professionals, young and old, in hands-on work to reinvigorate their Jewish community. Through volunteer Steering Committee and Mentor opportunities, these communities are tapping their talents and the passions of their local residents to engage in the greatest challenges facing their communities. Using PresenTense’s program toolkit, these local institutions are developing meaningful volunteering opportunities that leverage the hour-a-week, hour-a-month, or hour-a-year they can give to improve their local community. This gift of time, more often than not, is followed by an increased financial commitment as well, which means that satisfaction has been high: despite the occasional bumps and challenges that occur, so far, 100% of the communities that have started the PresenTense program have renewed their commitment to PresenTense and run the program again the following year.

It is hard to believe that the Community Entrepreneur Partnership program, developed by the PresenTense Group in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston in 2009, has come this far in such a short period of time. By the end of July, thanks to this unique way of pairing community institutions such as JCCs and Federations, 282 Jewish innovators will have gone through twenty-four program cycles of a training program that inspires them to develop new organizations and leadership frameworks for the Jewish People. That number is a order of magnitude larger than other start-up incubators and accelerators combined, and was a deliberate strategy recognizing that even if the ventures launched by these Jewish innovators do not continue, they represent human capital of the finest kind, exactly the leadership the Jewish People need to succeed in the 21st century.

But that is only the beginning. Over a thousand volunteers will have recognized that their Federation, their JCC, is not merely a historic institution of the past, but an engine for generating a better future. And according to last reports, over 277,000 people have volunteered through, participated in, watched or listened to the work done by these fellows, creating a network effect that is phenomenal in its growth. To see for yourself, check out our impact website with our fully transparent dataset, here.

Even more exciting – this next year, new communities will join PresenTense’s Community Entrepreneur Partnership Network. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles announced its partnership with PresenTense earlier this year, and additional communities will do so in the month to come as we approach the June 15th deadline to sign up for the next cycle of the program. As network theory mavens will know, each additional community means an exponential increase in the connections, resources and opportunities available to the Jewish People as these start-ups get off the ground and start engaging their communities. That means that next June, close to 200 new ventures will join the 300 already launched by PresenTense and its community partners. If you are interested in what the Jewish future holds, keep your eyes open this, and every, June.

Ariel Beery is co-founder and co-director of the PresenTense Group.