by Abigail Pickus

When ROI launched in 2005 as a partnership between Taglit-Birthright Israel and the philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, it was an experiment. Would bringing over 100 young Jews from across the globe to Israel for an intense, five-day networking and professional development conference really yield a “return on investment?”

Now, as a new batch of 150 young innovators are poised to gather today in Jerusalem for the 7th annual ROI Summit, the answer, it seems, is a resounding “yes.”

“We started out as a five-day conference and have since evolved into a 365-day a year community and throughout it all are continuously reinventing ourselves and progressing,” said Justin Korda, Executive Director of the ROI Community. Since 2008, ROI has been exclusively supported by Schusterman.
What this means is that in addition to the annual Summit – which this year gathers in Israel 20-and 30-something young Jews from Uganda, Turkey and Uruguay, as well as North America, Europe and beyond – ROI has continued to expand its offerings. Throughout the year, ROI also organizes gatherings in different locations around the world and offers career development opportunities and financial support in the form of grants for the 800-strong global community.

ROI’s organizers are not shy about their ambitions.

“We call it 1,000 impacting 1 million,” said Korda. “ Over the next five years, ROI aims to have a network of more than 1,000 Jewish activists collectively engaging over 1 million people in Jewish life.”

Already, ROI participants are returning the investment. Shoshana Bloom, who attended a past ROI Summit and a European gathering, is working to make the Jewish world more inclusive for those with disabilities. She launched Limmud La’am at Limmud UK last year, which integrated learning disabled presenters and adult participants into the mix. Fellow ROIer David Brown oversaw its implementation. Shoshana also played a central role in Birthright Limitless, the UK Jewish community’s first free trip to Israel for young people with physical and learning disabilities.

For 2012 ROI Summit Participant Dr. Jonah Mink, his tikkun olam contribution is to help the vulnerable refugee and migrant population in Tel Aviv. With veteran ROIer Tobin Greensweig, Mink is setting up an electronic medical records system for a refugee health clinic in Tel Aviv. The clinic has so far served over 7,000 patients and is overwhelmed by care seekers. The goal of the project is to expand the clinic’s capacity to meet the health needs of this population, as well as to enable integrated care at other primary care offices throughout the country.

The ROI Micro Grants program, established in 2007, will have awarded $300,000 by the end of 2012. It’s scope includes enabling ROI members to build their social start-ups, advance professional development and pursue Jewish learning. Recently, ROI partnered with The Natan Fund to establish the Natan Grants for ROI Entrepreneurs, which will support ROI members with concrete program ideas for strengthening Jewish life around the world.

And now ROI is adding another program to their roster: The Connectors program. Currently in its pilot year, ROI is training select members across the globe to run ROI-branded gatherings in their local communities.

“The idea here is to build on what we started with the Summit. The first is that nothing can really replace the power of face-to-face interactions,” said Korda. “And the bigger picture is that by investing and focusing our efforts on a smaller group of people, they will cause a ripple effect as they reach out to even larger groups of people.”

For Sandy Cardin, President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, ROI has emerged as one of its flagship programs.

“In many ways, the ROI Community is the embodiment of the vision with which Lynn [Schusterman] guides all of the activities of the Foundation. It is a vibrant network of young, passionate and engaged Jews from all over the globe who respect each other for who they are, and who are striving to make the world a better place for everyone,” he said.