Start-Up Summit

The five-day ROI Summit in Jerusalem was a hotbed of innovative new projects
by young Jews across the globe

by Abigail Pickus

When Ira Merzlykh backpacked around the north of India with a group of Israelis a few years ago, she was mesmerized by its splendor.

The snow-capped Himalayan mountains. The azure rivers. The magnificent temples.

And then she noticed the garbage.

Mountains and mountains of plastic refuge overflowed throughout the villages. Even worse, to keep warm at night the children burned the plastic, which is highly toxic both to the children and the environment.

“How could I look at this and not doing anything about it?” the 29-year-old Tel Aviv resident asked herself.

And so was born, Merzlykh’s idea to clean up the region, recycle the garbage, educate the local population and harness the tikkun olom power of Israeli backpackers.

Merzlykh was one of 145 young Jews from 36 countries who gathered in Jerusalem from June 12-16 for the ROI Summit, a conference that enabled these 20 and 30-something entrepreneurs, technology experts, thinkers and artists a chance to network, support each other and glean knowledge from successful leaders to ultimately take the helm of the Jewish future.

The Summit – which is the pinnacle of the ROI Community, established by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman in 2005 – also served as a key incubator for a host of brand new start- ups that seem likely to transform the global Jewish world and beyond.

Naftali Ejdelman, another ROI participant, has already launched his project – a Yiddish-speaking farm in the Hudson River Valley.

The 25-year-old New Yorker, along with his partner, Yisroel Bass, recently established the farm in Goshen, NY, 50 miles northwest of New York City (and close to the Hasidic, Yiddish speaking village of Kiryas Joel), which they aim to be a pluralistic Jewish community that will bring together native and non-native Yiddish speakers to sustain Yiddish as a living language and to promote environmental stewardship through sustainable agriculture.

The farm’s organizers see it as serving three distinct communities: Yiddishists, Hasids who want to live outside their community but still speak Yiddish, and college students who are looking for a Yiddish immersion program.

“We will bring these three populations together in one pluralistic community in one space where Yiddish is the main language and we will teach everyone sustainable agriculture skills,” said Ejdelman.

Ejdelman grew up in a Yiddish speaking home and comes from a long line of Yiddishists, including his great-aunt, the Yiddish poet Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman and his late maternal grandfather, Mordkhe Schaechter, who was a leading Yiddish linguist.

While at Brandeis University, Ejdelman became interested in environmental causes. After graduating, he worked for a Jewish environmental education program where it began to dawn on him that he could combine his passion for Yiddish and environmentalism in one unique package: a Yiddish farm.

Family friends donated the land, which was originally purchased to house a Yiddish agricultural community that never took off. And they have already launched a website: As a pilot program, they’ve organized a Yiddish-speaking cohort (all in their 20s and 30s) to live this summer in a communal, Yiddish speaking house at Kayam, a Jewish eco-farm in Maryland.

In March, Ejdelman anticipates the initial farm members will move onto the land. Some will work on the farm itself, either cultivating the half-acre plot with mixed vegetables or raising the chickens, sheep and goats. Those who wish to work outside the community but live on the farm must pay to do so.

In many respects, Ejdelman is coming full circle since his great-grandfather had once envisioned just such a Yiddish farm.

“I am fulfilling my grandfather’s dream,” he said.

ROI Summit participant Brett Lockspeiser, 29, of San Francisco has yet another idea: a massive online project to usher Jewish texts into the 21st century.

Together with friend Josh Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, whom he met on a 1999 Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, the two have conceived of what they are currently calling Sefaria, a combination of sifria (Hebew for library) and safari.

The project involves digitizing English translations of the Torah and core Jewish cannon (including the Talmud, Gemara, Midrash and Zohar) to create a usable, interactive interface that showcases the interconnections of these texts.

“Both Josh and I were dismayed and disappointed to discover that if we wanted to look up a passage [from a Jewish text] on Google, most of the texts really aren’t online in a good way. In some places they are up there, but not in English translation or the interface is horrendous,” said Lockspeiser, a former product manager at Google.

The duo’s vision is to have a “big platform where all of these texts in translation can live together in the public domain in a structured and interactive application that has never been done before,” according to Lockspeiser.

Still in its dream phase, to get off the ground, the project will need not only funding and software engineers, but a dedicated team of volunteer Jewish educators and translators across the globe.

The end result will enable someone to read the book of Genesis, for example, and click on a verse to see all its different commentaries. In turn, those commentaries will lead to additional versus and additional commentaries and so on and so forth.

“Our tradition is wonderfully interrelated,” said Lockspeiser. “Things begin in the chumash, the midrash reinterprets it, the gemara quotes a verse and makes a halacha about it and then Rashi comes in and flips a verse on its head or changes the interpretation. This interface is an exciting vision because it will offer an experience where you can feel all of these things together.”

There will also be a search option where people can plug in a topic – take Judaism and medical ethics – and come up with a single source sheet listing all relevant references.

By the end of the summer, Lockspeiser aims to release to the public a demonstration to show the depth of the experience.

And he leveraged ROI Summit participants as a targeted focus group.

The overwhelming majority of the 50 people he tapped for feedback gave it rave reviews, offered constructive criticism and offered to put Lockspeiser in touch with people outside the ROI community to further help him, including someone working on a similar project outside of the Jewish world who already agreed to meet with him.

More importantly, Lockspeiser will return home with a growing network of supporters he can tap for ideas and when the time comes, assistance.

“The feeling is very encouraging. Now I realize that I really can do this. I’m excited to go home and keep on working,” he said.

As for Merzlykh, who hopes to get her project in India off the ground in April, the ROI Summit has enabled her to take her idea seriously.

“Until I got here I thought was just dream in my head,” she said.

But after she presented her idea to the entire Summit, participants started approaching her with not only encouragement but with specific suggestions for organizations to partner with in Israel and India. Some even offered to build her website and help with branding.

“The day before yesterday I thought it was just a dream I had. But today I’m already talking logistics,” said Merzlykh.