How, Why and Why Not?:
A Social Innovation Virtual Hackathon Open to Teens Across the Country

By Rabbi Dena Shaffer

Throughout our history, Judaism has embraced innovation. As a people, we have often reinvented ourselves in order to survive and remain relevant. Think back to the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Suddenly scattered across the world, with no central institution to call home, no rituals to be performed, our house inaccessible, Jewish leaders drew inspiration from the past to create and design Jewish practice anew … perhaps the first real startup in human history! And yet entrepreneurial skills are often not taught to teens, and even less frequently taught through a Jewish lens.

As we design new virtual experiences for – and with – teens, we learn more and more about what makes these powerful. New research helps build our knowledge in this area; equally important to us, the 4Front Baltimore Teen Initiative – a community-wide Jewish Teen Initiative housed by the JCC of Greater Baltimore, funded by the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and Jim Joseph Foundation, and one of ten communities in the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative – is what we learn from experimentation and iteration.

On October 25th, the Funder Collaborative is hosting a Social Innovation Virtual Hackathon for teens from across the country.

This event is modeled on an existing 4Front program designed by Jewish educators and StartUp Experience, a youth-serving educational company led by founder and VC investor Henrik Scheel. This reimagined Hackathon builds on learnings not just from shifting into virtual programming over the past six months, but the past few years. This is the first time the program, in partnership with 5 other Funder Collaborative communities, will be open to any Jewish teen – made possible by the reach of the Funder Collaborative and the erasure of geographical boundaries in this new world.  

In one day, teens will go through the entire entrepreneurial process to create innovative solutions to pressing issues. Henrik will boost their creative capacity and skillset as they learn how to use business to make a positive impact. Responding to teens’ desires to create change that speaks to this moment, they’ll explore some of the COVID-related problems directly impacting young people in our country. The world needs their innovative thinking now more than ever, and the Jewish community even more so!  Young people represent fresh and interesting perspective. They haven’t been jaded by decades of doing things a certain way, by the limitations of expectations.  With guidance from expert facilitators with real world experience”, they are primed to view problems critically, to wonder “how” and “why” and “why not?”

The Hackathon meets the needs and desires of global teens today. Seventy percent of teens have expressed an interest in launching their own business, and 20% of them already have. Teens see role models and celebrities achieve fame, wealth, and status through entrepreneurship (business is sexy again!), but they often don’t see what it takes to succeed in the entrepreneurial world.

While the Hackathon will expose teens to a number of secular skills and growth points, it will also focus on a major question from the Jewish perspective, utilizing Jewish texts and wisdom: How can and why should we use innovation & business principles to make the world a better place?

To explore these questions, Jewish wisdom and content will be woven with secular teachings highlighting how for-profit can also be for-purpose, igniting teens’ motivation and ability to give back to others and address pressing social issues. They will be introduced to ways to make a difference other than avenues traditionally presented by youth programming: hands-on service or volunteering. The for-profit and start-up lens, when leveraged for social change, can be incredibly powerful. The world of social entrepreneurship offers teens a compelling way to explore Jewish values around privilege, wealth, and character development. 

The Virtual Hackathon is designed to build teens’ resume through real-world problem-solving experience and engagement in high-level business theories – concrete and translatable skills ensuring they leave feeling fulfilled with a sense of accomplishment.

Any teen in any community is welcome to register for the Social Innovation Virtual Hackathon October 25, 1-5pm ET. Come learn about the entrepreneurial mindset and the “lean start-up method” while ideating, validating, and pitching solutions to today’s greatest challenges.

Rabbi Dena Shaffer is Executive Director of 4Front Baltimore, one of ten communities in the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative