It is a fitting time in the Jewish calendar for Jewish start-ups to begin or renew their journey with UpStart. As a people, we are counting the days from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This period of time is also an agricultural period, during which time the wheat was harvested, and the first fruits gathered, precious offerings to be brought to the Temple. It is a time of reflection and growth, which results in the gift of something new to the community.
The Torah states in Leviticus 23:15-16: “And you shall count you from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day you bring the elevation sheaf, seven whole weeks shall they be. Until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath you shall count fifty days, and you shall bring forward a new grain offering to the Lord.”(translation by Robert Alter)
The new grain offering and the first fruits (those harvested during the agricultural period between Passover and Shavuot) are symbolic of the growth and ultimate renewal of the people who wandered in the desert before receiving the Torah. This time of year is a reminder that nothing new, nourishing, and paradigm-altering can emerge without a period of growth and wandering, without spending some time in the liminal space of the desert.
UpStart Bay Area is currently supporting ten Jewish start-up organizations, each making its way through the desert. Our four new UpStarter organizations have just been selected to join our stellar cadre of current UpStarters – Fair Trade Judaica, G-dcast, Kevah, Moishe House, The Table and Wilderness Torah. All are pioneering creative ways for today’s Jews to engage meaningfully in Jewish life and affect positive changes in the world at large. The new cohort includes:
- A Wider Bridge, led by Arthur Slepian, is dedicated to building stronger ties between the LGBTQ Jewish communities in Israel and North America. Building this bridge will strengthen the communities in both countries, and provide a unique pathway for more LGBTQ Jews in North America, especially younger ones, to find meaningful engagement with Israel.
- Amir, led by David Fox, is an educational nonprofit dedicated to creating an environmentally conscious and globally just future. By facilitating the space for children to design, build, and plant gardens together, Amir teaches youth about issues of hunger, sharing limited resources, and community.
- The Kitchen, led by Rabbi Noa Kushner, strives to build a connected, invested, spiritually alive generation of Jews and a new resonant approach to religious life in San Francisco.
- Urban Adamah: The Jewish Sustainability Corps, led by Adam Berman, pursues a socially just and environmentally sustainable world through Jewish service- learning programs that train future Jewish leaders in their twenties, inspire Bay Area Jewish students of all ages, and strengthen Bay Area Jewish communities. Their programs integrate hands-on urban agriculture, direct social action, community building, and progressive Jewish living and learning.
UpStart exists as an organization in order to create a nourishing space for emerging Jewish organizations. We accept organizations that have been birthed – that have made it through the Red Sea with the hoof-steps of the Egyptians drumming behind them. We call this proof of concept; all of our new organizations have proven that they are capable of attracting participants and delivering value. But we are aware that there is a wandering period between this birth and the next step – receiving the Torah, having baskets of fruits and fresh bread ready to gift to the community.
UpStart is aware that one of the best skills we can teach our UpStarters is how to thrive in the desert. As they trudge through the sands of developing and implementing strong business concepts, perhaps the most important lesson they need to learn is how to pivot, a term introduced by Eric Ries, a major thinker in the field of innovation. The “pivot,” Ries explains in his blog is “the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future. Over time, this pivoting may lead them far afield from their original vision, but if you look carefully, you’ll be able to detect common threads that link each iteration.”
One of our goals at UpStart is to train Jewish innovators to pivot effectively. We help them enhance their the ability to stay flexible, realistic, and adaptable. We impart the tools, network, and support they need to pivot in the desert sands, and to increase the chances that they will bring delicious, beautiful gifts to the community and to the world.
A midrash in Exodus Rabbah 44:1 states: “When the Holy One sought to make Israel known throughout the world, what did He do? He plucked them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness, and there they began to thrive; there they received the Torah and their name went forth throughout the world.”
We hope, during this time of counting in the wilderness, of anticipating new fruits, that our UpStarters will grow and thrive, and that this growth will reverberate in the Jewish community and in the world at large.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.