ROI 2013: Who Are You?


The final list of participants in the 2013 iteration of the ROI Summit was released recently. The ROI summit is an annual gathering that brings together a select group of 150 young Jews from across the world for an almost all expenses paid, intense, 4-day experience that involves networking, collaboration, skill building and more. To date there are over 800 alumni who have participated in ROI over the last 7 years of its existence. The alumni include some of the best known names in the areas of Jewish Innovation and social entrepreneurship – I’m not going to embarrass anyone by mentioning names, but if there’s something cool and Jewish going on almost anywhere in the world, chances are that an ROI alum is not too far away. Once you become an ROI member, you belong to this very diverse, international group of people. The Schusterman Foundation, who underwrites the cost of this event, also supports a whole series of gatherings and get-togethers that take place throughout the year – these include Connection Points, Meetups and Regional Gatherings – some of which are open to prospective ROI members as well as existing ones. On top of that, every ROI alum is entitled to an annual stipend which they may spend to support a project or use to attend relevant events.

Long story short – ROI is clearly the gold standard when it comes to the direction and face of young Jewish innovation. Said innovation does not exist in a vacuum. It takes place in a context of decreasing levels of affiliation among young Jews. Jewish denominations like to trot out numbers and statistics to show how one or the other is the fastest growing, but the fact remains that the fastest growing segment of the young Jewish population is one that is unaffiliated with the larger Jewish community. Many reasons have been posited for this situation – young Jews are uninspired by what the organized Jewish community has to offer. Thus they either create their own extended and more personally relevant communities or they simply opt out entirely. ROI stands as an attempt, at least in theory, to create avenues of identification that are relevant because they are the product of young Jews seeking to find relevance. And it’s as pareve and ideologically neutral grouping you will ever find, one that includes a purposefully diverse group of Jews of every stripe and persuasion.

As such, the annual cohort merits a closer look. Whoever they are, they represent one organization’s perception of the future of the Jewish Community. The application process itself is a bottoms up affair, with alumni and community members suggesting prospective candidates and the ROI staff undertaking the often painful task of deciding who to choose out of the hundreds of applicants. As Justin Korda, Executive Director of ROI Community recently wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy:

The application process for the ROI Summit is simultaneously one of the best and hardest times of the year for me – best because it reinforces the incredible young Jewish talent coming of age in communities around the world; hardest because I’m reminded that the Jewish world still does not have enough compelling opportunities to nurture all of it. Until we do, far too many young Jews who want to contribute to strengthening the Jewish future will be told “no, but” rather than “yes, and.” Faced with a negative response, many will choose to focus their time and talent elsewhere – a loss for them and for our community.

Yeah. No doubt. As such, Wendy In Furs and I divvied up the bios of this year’s cohort and looked for some commonalities. The first thing we did was create the word cloud illustration which you see at the top of this post. The Word Cloud is generated from entering all the bios at once into Wordie. You can try it yourself using this form – just click on the submit button below and using wordie you can create your own ROI 2013 word cloud and customize it any way you like:

The Word Cloud looks as you might excpect. The words “Jewish, “Israel,” “Young” and “Community” stand out – and that does warm the heart. But does the Word Cloud tell the whole story? So Wendy and I went back and forth arguing about the relevance of certain issues vs. others. Neither of us is scientific or mathematically inclined, but some things did stand out. For instance the word “Network” was mentioned 44 times. “Innovative” appeared 43 times, “Entrepreneur” 36 times, “Startup” 17 times, “Tikkun” 9 times and “LGBT” only once. Make of that what you will.

As for this cohort, 13 currently study or studied Law, and 12 are enrolled in or graduated from advanced business programs – ie an MBA. There are 21 self-described CEOs which we found remarkable for such a young group. Also there are 7 Rabbis or Rabbinical students representing different denominations. The most noteworthy thing we found, one that we argued about a lot, was that nearly half of this year’s crop of ROIers were involved in, or employed by, a collection of 34 large, established Jewish organizations. These include Hillel, the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, Local Federations, the Jewish Federations of North America, AIPAC, Birthright Israel, the Bnai Brith Youth Organization, the Anti-Defamation League etc.

What does this mean? Is it a reflection of a belief that posits the hope for a new and more relevant Jewish community that will come from its young leadership rather than from unaffiliated grass roots elements? Or is it just a statistical blip, reflecting the notion that a young Jew interested in Jewish issues will naturally gravitate toward employment with established Jewish organizations, even as said organizations continue to fail to significantly engage youn Jews? I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not a statistician and, as Wendy often reminds me, what the heck do I know anyway? But these are questions worthy of further exploration and discussion.

Past ROI cohorts have been pretty awesome. I spent the better part of this year working on both the newly minted Jewrotica, headed by Ayo Oppenheimer and JewTube, founded by Jeremy Kossen, an alum of the very first ROI. The Muslim Jewish Conference that I will be staffing next month in Sarajevo is headed and staffed by a whole gang of ROI alums. I look forward to seeing what this year’s cohort is going to produce. They will be meeting in Jerusalem this year from June 9-13. Good luck!

David Abitbol is the creator of Jewlicious.com where this is cross-posted.