By Justin Korda
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: every year that we embark on the exciting process of choosing the next cohort of ROI Community members, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose just 120 out of the hundreds of phenomenal applications we receive. This year has been no different; in fact, the sentiment is even stronger: more than ever before, in 2015 we received applications from hundreds of overwhelmingly talented, inspiringly passionate and highly qualified individuals, who work day in and day out to make the Jewish world, and the world at large, a better place.
It goes without saying that we were – and continue to be – humbled and honored by the enthusiasm of so many to join our Community. Beyond that, though, we quickly realized that what we had at our fingertips was not only an outstanding applicant pool, but an amazing opportunity to learn firsthand what motivates and inspires the demographic that countless Jewish foundations, nonprofits and businesses are expending endless resources to reach: leading Jewish millennials. What values drive these young professionals? How would they like to express themselves Jewishly? What is important to them? Five-hundred highly accomplished Jewish millennials raised their hands and, through their ROI Summit applications, gave us important insights into these burning questions. We were gifted with a bird’s eye view of some of the incredible emerging talent in the young Jewish world and, in keeping with ROI’s principle of being a community of reciprocity, I want to give back to the greater Jewish community by sharing with you our three main discoveries.
1. The Un-digital Connection: Though cellphones, tablets and keyboards seem almost to be extensions of the hands of young people today, our experience suggests quite strongly that even millennials understand that nothing is more powerful than an in-person connection. From the overwhelming response to our call for applications, we came to understand that today’s leading young Jews are seeking out opportunities to meet face-to-face. Participation in the ROI Summit requires taking five days out of their busy lives, and being present in the room for the duration of the experience; the fact that hundreds of accomplished millennials from across the globe volunteered to take this pause is extremely significant. It shows that when given the opportunity, they want to make this a priority.
2. Jewishly–Differently: Despite the fact that the general sense – and fear – among Jewish institutions is that young people today are less involved in Jewish life, and less connected to their Jewish identities, than ever before, 500 ROI applicants showed us that they place a high value on connecting to the Jewish community. What is attracting them?
At ROI, we try to meet our members where they are and empower them to create Jewish community in their own image. Young people today have varied and complex identities, of which “Jewish” tends to play just one role – and oftentimes, not even the main one. While these millennial leaders may therefore not find their calling in traditional Jewish institutions in which Judaism is expected to be top priority, they do see themselves fitting into a Jewish network that encourages them to explore the multiple layers of their identities on their own terms, and create Jewish communities that jive with their other deeply held values – Tikkun Olam, education, environmentalism, social justice and more. This realization alone – that Jewish life is important to the millennials who are most active in building the future of this world, albeit in new and evolving ways – is inspiring. It signifies tremendous hope for a vibrant and sustainable future for the entire Jewish community.
3. Make It Global: One final, related takeaway from this process is that Jewish millennial leaders not only wish to be connected to a relevant Jewish community – they wish to tap into a global one. If their application to ROI tells us anything, it is that these young leaders are drawn to the idea of connecting with their counterparts around the world. With globalization increasing in all other aspects of their lives – from the food they eat, to the music they listen to, to their own propensity to travel more than any generation before them – it only makes sense that Jewish millennial leaders would be intrigued by the notion of globalization in the Jewish world, too. ROI Community – a network of almost 1,000 young and innovative Jews from more than 50 countries – clearly appeals to the worldliness of the millennial Jewish generation.
In essence, these young Jewish leaders – lawyers, high tech CEOs, accomplished social innovators, teachers, Jewish professionals and more – are leaving us a trail of breadcrumbs. Rather than tell the young people what they want, let us listen to what they have already told us and help them build and engage with a Jewish world that is attractive to them. Offer them opportunities to make meaningful, in-person connections; invite them into a Jewish community that allows them to develop and express their own personal cocktails of identity; and help them connect with other young Jews from around the world. Ultimately, it is this sort of Jewish engagement that the young generation seeks.
In 2015, we have taken additional steps to ensure that even those who will not attend the Summit in June have been made aware of these kinds of opportunities, carefully suggesting programs that appeal to their stated interests and experiences. In doing so, despite having had to turn away many impressive young candidates, we hope we have nevertheless succeeded in following the breadcrumbs, pointing those who left them towards meaningful and relevant Jewish experiences.
As we prepare for the ninth ROI Summit, we look forward to seeing the magic that will take place when just the right combination of Jewish leaders gathers together for five intensive days of networking, professional development, friendship building and discovery. Ultimately, while we at ROI relish the job of bringing the next generation of ROI Community members to Israel and curating a memorable experience for them in Jerusalem, it is up to the community as a whole to reflect, collaborate with one another and together, build the kind of Jewish world that they would like to see going forward.
Justin Korda is Executive Director of ROI Community.