Seeking Inspiration at the ROI Summit in Jerusalem

Yoni Gordis, Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Initiatives, leading ROI's signature 'Open Space' session.

by Abigail Pickus

Andrea Kasper dreamed of a new kind of Jewish high school.

The kind where the emphasis would be on doing and creating. The kind where the classroom would be the rolling fields and the carpenter’s workshop and the dance studio.

The kind where what matters is not AP scores or getting into an Ivy League university, but growing the vegetables for lunch or building the chairs for the students to sit on. The kind of place where Hebrew wouldn’t be written on chalkboards to be memorized by rote, but would be infused organically into every aspect of the learning, along with the Talmud and the Torah.

The kind of place she has yet to see in the Jewish world in North America.

“Yadaim Academy of Applied Academic’s vision is to increase the diversity and types of Jewish high schools we have in North America under a more inclusive model,” said Kasper, who is in a joint doctoral program in Jewish educational leadership at Northeastern University and Hebrew College. “Jewish high schools in the U.S. are traditionally academically rigorous, which means that students who are not interested in having that or capable of it are not privy to a Jewish high school experience.”

Kasper, 36, who is also a professional dancer, was born in Israel, raised in the Boston-area and now lives in Iceland with her husband and two young children.

She was one of the 150 young innovators hand picked by ROI to participate in its 7th annual Summit this June in Jerusalem.

“What we strive to do is bring together 20-and 30-something trailblazers from across the globe who are transforming the Jewish world and beyond and who are building a more pluralistic and more inclusive Jewish future,” said Justin Korda, Executive Director of the ROI Community.

In addition to offering professional development tools and featuring inspirational speakers and mentors, one of the main objectives of the five-day conference is to bring these young people together to collaborate and offer each other strategic support.

For Kasper, who won the 2011 Jewish Futures Competition for Yadaim, and who already has two co-founders and an advisory board, what she found to be the most helpful at the Summit was the personal interactions.

“With ROI, I was hoping to meet people who would either share the vision or have insights into how to move it forward. I am not interested in doing this alone as I am collaborative in nature,” she said.

While Kasper’s project is in its initial stages, with the goal of opening a school in the U.S. in 2015, Jonah Mink, 27, came to the Summit with a number of successful independent projects under his belt.

The Buffalo, NY, native moved to Tel Aviv to attend the Ben Gurion University Medical School for International Health.

Recently, he and fellow ROIer Tobin Greensweig, launched and implemented an electronic medical records system to benefit refugees in Israel in need of medical care.

Since the thousands of refugees living in Israel do not have access to the medical care available to citizens, the Israeli Medical Association and the Ministry of Health set up a free clinic in Tel Aviv. But what Mink discovered was that this clinic, which serves the entire population of refugees from across the country, did not have a streamlined record keeping system.

“Until now, it has been incredibly inefficient with no proper record keeping and an inability to find files on repeat visits,” said Mink.

Working with the director of the clinic, and with Greensweig, a fellow medical student and programmer, what Mink helped create is an efficient system that is comparable to the system in place for citizens. Now each patient has an identification number that has been logged into the system and with it, his or her complete medical history so that all medical professionals working with this population can access their records. The system also allows for lab test results and specialist services.

“Doctors love it and the feedback has been really positive,” said Mink. So far, this improved system is benefiting the over 7,000 patients who have sought medical care at the clinic, but since the program is web-based, it has the potential to help even more patients across the country.

“I don’t like injustice,” said Mink. “There is a reason I went to this global medical school in Israel instead of medical school in the States. I want to do work that helps the people who need help the most.”

Now Mink is juggling five other projects, including some in the initial stages. What he found at the ROI Summit was endless opportunities for give and take in terms of furthering his projects – and assisting others with theirs.

“Everyone is so motivated and the energy is contagious. It’s especially helpful to be able to speak with people from all different fields,” said Mink. “I have met people from business consulting backgrounds who have given me such concrete ideas about how to get my newest venture off the ground.”

Not all of the ROI innovators, however, are social entrepreneurs. Many are Jewish professionals who are transforming the Jewish world from within. Lena Kushnir, 24, is just such an “intrapreneur.”

Born and raised in a Jewish family in the Ukraine, she didn’t know what it meant to be Jewish until she was 12 years old.

“When it came to religions, I only knew about Christianity or Islam,” said Kushnir, who through the wife of a rabbi was invited to check out a Jewish Agency Sunday school for teenagers in a town near Kiev.

Through this experience, Kushnir rediscovered her Jewish heritage. She organized a music club at the Sunday school, attended a Jewish high school for a few years and took classes in the Department of Jewish Studies during university.

Her awakening came during a year of intensive Jewish studies at Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, where she met Jewish students from 16 countries. There she found out about Moishe House, an organization that supports group homes across the globe for Jewish 20-somethings. Residents of each Moishe House design their own community, such as hosting Shabbat and holiday meals or running educational events. For Kushnir, who founded the first Moishe House in Kiev, where she currently lives with three other Jewish women, the experience has been life changing.

“Before I was active [in the Jewish community], but not just in one organization. I didn’t see one ideal community where I felt connected, but when I heard about Moishe House I said I have to bring it to Kiev,” said Kushnir of her venture that was established in 2010. There are a total of six Moishe Houses in the FSU. The Kiev house is the only one in the Ukraine.

Kiev is home to 17,000 Jews and while there are a few synagogues and communities connected to the various synagogues, as well as Hillel for students and other youth-oriented groups, there was nothing that would directly appeal to young adults in their 20s and 30s, according to Kushnir.

The residents of Moishe House Kiev, whom Kushnir has decided must all be women, have graduated from university and are in the working world. The flavor of this particular house is they like intellectual games. (Some of the residents are even champions.) Through their circles of friends, they bring in other young professional Jews to not only play games, but to celebrate Jewish holidays. Kushnir also organizes a beit midrash with a guest lecturer once a month.

The majority of the residents and those who come to hang out in the house are not involved in organized Jewish life. Some even experienced their first seder at the house.

“These are people like me,” said Kushnir. “They work and want to stay connected to Judaism in a natural way – not in a synagogue. They want an informal, social Jewish life. I never thought I could be a teacher or tell someone how to be connected to Judaism, but here I have the possibility in an informal way to show people that Jewish is cool, meaningful, entertaining and interesting.”

In fact, up until recently, Kushner was a Jewish professional, working as an event planner and tour guide in Jewish Kiev for Jewish organizations.

“Now I am in the stage of something new in my life,” she said. “I’m looking for some beautiful ideas I can bring back to Kiev.”

The ROI Summit proved to be the perfect place for Kushnir to seek inspiration.

“With ROI I have been able to meet people who I can bring back to Moishe House Kiev as speakers. I’ve also built connections and learned more about Jewish innovation and what tools and methods I can use in my own work,” she said.