An Investment in Social Entrepreneurs Yields Real Value, Unexpected and Welcome Returns
By Lisa Lepson
In the late 1990s, many of us saw a Jewish community with great potential for change. But it lagged far behind in nourishing new ideas. Specific segments of the Jewish community received very little attention or were being ignored almost entirely: LGBT Jews, Jews of color, young Jewish leaders – to name only a few.
In response to these problems, Joshua Venture Group (JVG) launched its signature Dual Investment Program back in 2000 (known at the time as “the Fellowship”) to invest in the leadership and visions of young Jews to build a more vibrant and resonant Jewish life.
It was a novel idea at the time – a dual investment in both people and projects – with the modest expectation that this process would yield a handful of new organizations reflecting the priorities and interests of younger Jews.
Nearly two decades later, JVG has succeeded in delivering on our intended results – and also so much more. These unexpected returns on our investments have changed the landscape of the North American Jewish community in important ways:
JVG invests in game-changing organizations. The ventures we support blaze new trails and build out the infrastructure needed to ensure sustainable, enduring impact. The first two cohorts of the Dual Investment Program yielded organizations such as Matan, Keshet, and Sharsheret – offering powerful voices that advocate for children with special needs, LGBT Jews, and Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. More recent alumni continue to run some of the Jewish community’s most cutting-edge nonprofits, such as G-dcast, Bible Raps, Kavana Cooperative, and Wilderness Torah, each of which continues to challenge conventionality when it comes to engaging with Jewish texts, spirituality, and building community in the 21st Century.
Earlier this year, JVG surveyed its alumni to track their progress following their tenure as fellows. These fellows have proven that with the right infrastructure in place, the impact of their ventures will endure. Of the 32 ventures in which JVG has invested, 68% are currently operational, with nearly two-thirds of them still led by JVG alumni. Ten of these 22 operational ventures now have a staff of 6 or more, and 5 have grown their budgets to over $1 million.
Our Dual Investment Program identifies and cultivates strong and influential leaders. Our alumni are impressive and accomplished leaders; all continue to hold leadership roles (both lay and professional) within the Jewish community. Many have continued their work at the helm of their JVG-funded ventures, while others, as time goes on, have been tapped to lead more established communal organizations, bringing their innovative spirit to these roles.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin (’12) recently joined the clergy team at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills – hired as the innovator tasked with reinvigorating synagogue programming from the inside. Amy Tobin (’01), a current JVG board member who launched The Hub within the JCC of San Francisco while a JVG Fellow, assumed the role of CEO of JCC East Bay in July 2014. Daron ‘Farmer D’ Joffe (’03), a nationally recognized organic/biodynamic farmer and eco-entrepreneur, was named Director of Agricultural Development for the Leichtag Foundation. Amy and Farmer D now hold these positions over a decade after their JVG fellowships – and following careers during which they spearheaded social mission projects both within and outside the Jewish community.
Our dual investment catalyzes critical and meaningful change in the Jewish community. The impact of our alumni and their ventures continues to ripple through the communities they serve, influencing policy, practice, and the extent to which our communities embrace Jews of all backgrounds, orientations, and abilities.
Like any reasonable investor, we recognize that 100% of the projects we seed will not operate indefinitely. The long-term impact of those ventures in which we invested that have since closed their doors endures, as many were pioneers of their time whose groundbreaking work has led to important advances within their fields.
Take Ayecha, the first organization of its kind advocating on behalf of Jews of Color in the U.S. Founded by JVG Alumna Yavilah McCoy (’03), Ayecha may have officially closed in 2008, but the conversation it started about inclusion and diversity – and the influential leadership trained through its programs – continue to build awareness, opportunities, and points of connection for Jews of all backgrounds.
JDub Records, founded by JVG Alumnus Aaron Bisman (’03), is another prime example of an organization that, while no longer operational, changed the very fabric of Jewish cultural life. What started as a music production venture evolved into a coveted model for convening young Jews around contemporary Jewish culture in meaningful ways. Aaron and JDub rewrote the playbook on young adult engagement and were sought-after speakers and consultants on how to bring their success to more mainstream institutions.
Our cohort model creates a long-lasting support network for emerging leaders. Through our recent alumni survey, beyond affirming the general success and reach of many of the ventures we supported, as well as the importance of the financial and technical support provided through the program, we found that the network fostered through our cohort model yielded benefits and value years beyond the program.
Long after they “graduate,” JVG alumni continue to be integrated into our program activities, are called upon to mentor other fellows, and have been supported directly through targeted microgrant initiatives. The bonds formed through these consistent engagements, in addition to connections made during the program itself, remain a lifeline for alumni as they continue on their personal and professional journeys. In some instances, they even lead to exciting new opportunities, as was the case with Farmer D’s role at the Leichtag Foundation, which he was connected to through our network while attending a JVG retreat as an alumnus.
JVG’s Dual Investment Program is focused and intentional, tailoring a high-touch experience for carefully selected leaders and ventures that demonstrate great potential. Our mission endures to cultivate forward-thinking leadership and game-changing ventures, with the goal of reinvigorating the Jewish community. Moving forward, we are committed to working in partnership with philanthropic entities to seed change through investing in social entrepreneurship that impacts various geographic and issue areas in Jewish life.
As I articulated in my ELI Talk last fall, these seeds sometimes require patience to yield results. After our two-year program, we can be impressed by the groundbreaking work and broad reach of our fellows’ ventures. But lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. Only time will tell whether these leaders are making meaningful progress to build just, vibrant, and inclusive Jewish communities across North America. At JVG, we understand that it’s up to all of us to nurture these efforts. We invite the entire Jewish community to join us.
Lisa Lepson is Executive Director of Joshua Venture Group.