Federation-PresenTense Partnership to Pioneer Projects in Cleveland

by Aharon Horwitz

In the heart of Jerusalem’s German Colony, the headquarters of PresenTense are abuzz with the creative energy of young people focused on strengthening Jewish communities. From this “ZionHub,” as we call it, the four-year-old nonprofit organization helps entrepreneurs launch new social ventures.

Inspired by early Zionists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am, and A.D. Gordon, PresenTense has dedicated itself to growing a new generation of Jewish pioneers. They are envisioning and acting on what a 21st-century Jewish community might look like.

Thus, when Steve Hoffman, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, stopped by the ZionHub in 2009, the question of shared values was front and center. The Federation, with its focus on core social services, a specific geographic region, and a more mature demographic, seemingly confronts concerns different from PresenTense. Yet, when Steve met members of our community, he challenged us: How could PresenTense help solve the problems facing Jewish communities like Cleveland rather than focus only on global and larger metropolitan areas as we had from our inception?

The result is a creative and groundbreaking partnership between a global start-up and a nationally well-regarded, non-coastal federation. It may yet prove a light unto other mid-sized cities in North America, many of which are struggling to recover their balance in a challenging economic and demographic environment.

As noted in the CJN (“Three Jews who will change Cleveland,” May 21), Cleveland’s Federation has launched the JFC/PT Cleveland Social Entrepreneur Fellowship. In its first year, the Fellowship is supporting three social entrepreneurs addressing Cleveland-area challenges. These three innovators – working in youth engagement, Israel-Cleveland partnerships, and innovative community building – will train in Israel this summer with global business and community leaders. They will return to Cleveland to work under the mentorship of Cleveland’s deep network of entrepreneurs, community leaders and businesspeople.

If successful, in subsequent years we hope to open a local class of more Fellows trained and supported by a broad base of Clevelanders. These “intrapreneurs” would work with existing Cleveland institutions that are seeking new ideas and programs.

To date, PresenTense has helped ignite approximately 60 ventures through its global program and its pioneering partnership with Boston’s Jewish federation. Several of these are large-scale ventures in the fields of Jewish education, social action, environmental awareness, and Israel engagement.

For example, Challah for Hunger is now national and has been highlighted by former President Bill Clinton in his book Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. The BibleRaps Project is sweeping across the North American camp scene. Another start-up’s website is being adapted for deployment by Israel’s Knesset.

Overall, 70% of the ventures are ongoing and creating impact, and at least 45% have found funding streams or organizations eager to incorporate their programs. Collectively these ventures are reporting impact on a minimum of 200,000 community members.

Launching a local program in a community like Cleveland is a bold step that actually furthers Federation’s agenda of caring and job support during the recession. Cleveland recognizes that even in difficult markets, the most successful companies continue to devote portions of their budget to research and development and innovation; many of these innovations will support core areas of concerns.

Innovative start-ups housed at the Federation will ultimately engage, leverage and inspire the community. They will draw social, intellectual and financial capital from demographics that are crucial to Jewish Cleveland’s future. We’re seeing this theory prove itself in Jerusalem and in Boston.

Cleveland already holds a reputation as a strong and committed Jewish community, and there is buzz about its potential as a hub for innovation. For example, this month the Cleveland Clinic will be in Tel Aviv hosting a day on medical innovations; many of Israel’s brightest entrepreneurs – and PresenTense members – are participating. Last month, Fast Company magazine pointed to urban sustainability models being piloted in Cleveland and named Cleveland a “Fast City.”

Cleveland entrepreneurs like Fellowship steering committee member Todd Goldstein are incubating start-up companies, and others are pushing the envelope on research and technology.

Steve challenged the traditional paradigm last summer at the ZionHub. PresenTense, and innovative international organizations like it, can be a part of Jewry’s core. Federations will continue to spur innovation. A concern for communal needs with a broad horizon of innovative thinking may be a fruitful collaboration.

For each PresenTense Fellowship, we choose a fitting Jewish quote that inspires the entrepreneurs to action. For PresenTense’s first global fellowship, we riffed on Theodor Herzl’s “If you will it, it is no dream” by decorating T-shirts with “If you do it, it is no dream.”

For Cleveland’s Fellowship, we hearkened back to words of the late local Zionist and communal leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, whose words stirred our steering committee: “Be an architect of the future.” We hope this rings loud and clear as the Fellowship begins its work.

Aharon Horwitz, who grew up in Beachwood and now lives in Israel, is the co-founder and co-director of the PresenTense Group.

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Jewish News; reprinted with permission.