Owning Our Outcast Identity

ROI Summit 2013_2
ROI Summit 2013 participants; photo Adigital Photography

by Rebecca Saidlower and Daniel Kraus

Upon our arrival at the intensive, five-day Annual ROI Summit in Jerusalem, it was hard to make sense of the eclectic group of 150 young Jewish innovators and community leaders from around the world sitting in the room with us. What might we have in common or to discuss with the man bridging klezmer music with salsa in France or the woman working with at-risk Ethiopian teens who immigrated to Israel? The people in the room seemed interesting, certainly, but what was the overarching connection between us and the other ROI participants?

Nancy Lublin, CEO of Do Something Inc and founder of Dress for Success explained it best when addressing our group at the opening plenary. She commented that us Jewish entrepreneurial types have a unique way of looking at the world around us; always redesigning things to be more efficient or better marketed. This uniqueness makes us a bit weird, and in some ways makes us outcasts and misunderstood by our friends and family. Instantly, the connection was clear and the bond of being part of the ROI community was sealed. We are are all somewhat unusual, somewhat more mission driven. And we all want to push the limits of the status quo and move forward.

Despite our similar circles, we (Daniel and Rebecca) only knew each other casually before the summit, but we noted that our shared background of working in New York, both within and outside the Orthodox community, gave us a similar lens through which we viewed the experience. We are excited to share three takeaways that changed the way we view our roles as ‘outcasts’ within the current Jewish landscape.

1. Salaried Jobs vs. Passion Projects

Despite David Abitbol’s May 19, 2013 article, “ROI 2013: Who Are You?” which stated that “almost 50% of ROIers are affiliated with a major Jewish organization,” the feeling among the participants was decidedly different. Beyond formal professions, most of our fellow ROI participants had multiple interests and passion projects. A couple of days into the conference, one ROIer suggested that we switch our opening conversation inquiry from “What do you do?” to “What are you passionate about?” in order to help showcase the diverse projects and interests of the ROIers.

Everyone wore multiple hats, and drew upon different types of experiences to bring into the peer network. Was Daniel representing his former work at MJE (Manhattan Jewish Experience), his current position at KJ (Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun), or his side project, Koshertopia? Was Rebecca there as Director of Marketing at The Jewish Education Project, as a community builder and lay leader in the Modern Orthodox Young Professionals world, or as Development Chair of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel Young Alumnae Board? It became common place to have someone tell you that he works for NYC disaster management and then turn around to say that he also is half of a group called Bagels and Box that performs beat box prayer services, or that he is a world class debater and speechmaker who also taught Israeli and Palestinian youth how to use debate for political activism. Everyone had multiple interests, stories, perspectives and experiences.

Complex identity bodes well for the Jewish community. The varied and layered connections among young, entrepreneurial Jews and their interest in joining a network that not only links them to their peers but also to mainstream Jewish institutions has powerful potential. And for some, those links are inherent within the person, because so many individuals wear both the entrepreneur and the establishment hat themselves. This means that the new projects and experiments that are developed will more easily be connected to paths of distribution, funding and support. In a time when we face sustainability challenges in the Jewish community revolving around the tension between entrepreneurial and legacy organizations, these physical connections between the two can only lead to a stronger and more efficient Jewish infrastructure.

2.  The Jewish world outside of NYC (it exists!)

The ROI Summit forced us to consider our roles as Jews, not just in our local community but in the global one. Participating as part of a diverse group from 37 countries (and joining a larger community of past participants) forced us to think beyond New York and to form common causes with these smaller countries who are also trying to create deep and meaningful Jewish communities. The conversations were richer because we thought beyond our geographic borders. During an open space session that focused on regional topics, we had the opportunity to discuss anything from Jewish women in Eastern Europe to Jewish life in Morocco to our next vacation destinations (a very popular session!).

Meeting so many Jews from around the world forced us to confront our responsibility to global Jewish life now that we are home. As members of a large and thriving Jewish community in New York where there are endless options for Jewish expression, what collaborations can we have with smaller Jewish communities around the world, such as our ROI peers’ hometowns in Uruguay or Latvia? In a city where we proudly wear our Jewish identities on our sleeve, how do we relate to our peers who are navigating being Jewish in a country where schlep and bagel are not part of the national vernacular? The ROI summit made it clear that when it comes to the future of Jewish life, we are all in this together and that we need to work together toward shared goals.

3. Representing and expanding the Modern Orthodox purview

This experience provided a refreshing opportunity to network and share ideas with colleagues outside of our usual Modern Orthodox circles. As two people who have dedicated significant time and energy into building synagogue communities, it was fascinating for us to discuss the topic “Are synagogues dying” with members of Reform communities in LA, a Moishe House in Boston, an independent minyan in Chicago and others around the world. There are models of community and spirituality outside of the Orthodox world that we can and should be learning from and incorporating into our Modern Orthodox communities. Many dynamic Jews of all backgrounds, affiliations and non-affiliations have ideas and experiences that can help us address challenges in our very local home communities.

A month later, we are still processing all that we gained at the ROI summit. The five day intense dose of leadership, dream sharing, networking with global change makers and skill building left us with more to do when we got home than we could have imagined. And we know that the global Jewish community has many challenges and issues that must be addressed. But, we look around at our fellow members of the ROI community and proudly say that if these are the outcasts, the Jewish community is in good shape.

Rebecca Saidlower is the Director of Marketing and Communications at The Jewish Education Project. You can follow her on twitter at @rsaidlower.

Daniel Kraus is a Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York where he serves as the Director of Community Education. He can be followed at @rabbidkraus.