For several years now the organized Jewish community has rallied around the innovative work of social entrepreneurs and the programs that support them. Hundreds of new projects and organizations have been launched as a result of this movement, which has been spearheaded by organizations like PresenTense, ROI, the Joshua Venture, Bikkurim, The Natan Fund, Jumpstart, Upstart [Bay Area], and the Lippman Kanfer Institute at JESNA. And the flow of startup projects shows no sign of abating.
If the recent past is any guide, however, we will soon see some restlessness about the continuing focus on startups, and a desire to move on. That happened after “continuity” was heralded as the most urgent priority; it happened after day schools were favored. And it happened again after Jewish camping moved to the center of communal attention.
Those earlier priorities have two things in common. They all have focused on younger Jews, and they are all still vital parts of Jewish life. No doubt the innovation sector will continue to enrich Jewish life for a long time as well. The interest of Federations in places like Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and perhaps Los Angeles in PresenTense’s fellowships is a tangible sign that social entrepreneurship is moving into the mainstream, and that PresenTense in particular is providing a unique and necessary service in furthering the process.
The results of this thrust are different, however, from what was originally foreseen. In the early days of the Jewish innovation movement, a number of young hedge-fund and high-tech millionaires saw an opportunity to do for the Jewish world what they had achieved in business: provide seed money for new ventures that would, in the parlance of finance, be “scalable” and “sustainable.” As had happened in high-tech, an array of new creative enterprises would supposedly emerge and transform Jewish life.
At the time there was little debate about those assumptions and criteria because the initiative was so welcome. The support of social entrepreneurship has indeed enabled the launching of a great many important and original projects, but sustainability has turned out not to be their most important characteristic. As businesspeople-turned-politicians regularly discover, a community’s needs aren’t limited to services that are “scalable” and “sustainable,” and that’s true in Jewish life as well.
The most important outcome of the startup movement is epitomized by the ROI Community. Last week I spent a number of hours at the ROI Summit in Ramat Gan and Jerusalem, a series of professional workshops and other events in which 120 young Jewish leaders from around the world took part. Although each of them is identified with a project or organization, they were selected because of their personal talents and their commitment to Jewish life. For ROI, the point is to support these individuals more than to invest in a particular venture. That’s a key difference.
ROI not only invests in motivated, creative young people; it offers them a worldwide network of several hundred talented, committed Jews like themselves who will likely be colleagues for decades to come. It honors individual initiative, but that is the starting point rather than the goal. ROI situates their talents not in the competitive marketplace of venture capital but in the framework of strengthening Jewish life for the future.
It’s impossible to predict which Jewish institutions will survive in the next few decades, or in what form. No matter how the landscape of Jewish communal life evolves, however, ROI Community members will be positioned to make their mark far into the future. Long after the attention of the organized Jewish world moves beyond startups to the next big thing, as it inevitably will, ROI will continue to produce enormous dividends.
Ideas are important, but it’s people that matter most. By forming a community rather than replicating capital markets, the Schusterman Foundation has recognized that startups are a means, not an end. The value to the Jewish world of Lynn Schusterman’s ongoing investment in the creativity and commitment of the ROI Community cannot be overestimated.
Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem. He Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at www.twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.