By Jenna Beltser
With Rosh Hashanah just behind us, we are almost entirely focused on new beginnings. New beginnings are exciting as they represent limitless potential and unbounded possibility.
At the OU Impact Accelerator, we are elated for our very own new beginning. On September 4th, we hosted the final selection night to decide on our inaugural OU Impact Accelerator cohort: 4-6 Jewish nonprofit entrepreneurs who will each receive seed funding and a six-month mentorship program. At the final selection night, 12 semi-finalists pitched their nonprofit ventures to the Accelerator Board, OU senior leadership, and each other. Our 12 semi-finalists originated from 57 venture applicants via an online application this past spring. We first conducted an internal peer review to score the applications across seven different competencies, including “community need” and “potential for impact.” The top 20 ventures were invited to in-person or video interviews with OU colleagues and the Accelerator Board members. The first cohort for the Impact Accelerator will be announced in mid-October and will run from Sukkot through Passover, culminating in a nonprofit “demo-day” to publicly showcase their innovative programs.
Through the Accelerator, we are hoping to highlight Orthodox Jewish innovators who took the difficult step to begin something new: a nonprofit to improve Jewish life. We’ve learned a lot from the process of building a new venture ourselves and from working with the inspiring and devoted social entrepreneurs.
Here are a few takeaways from our first Accelerator selection process:
1. Jewish innovation knows no boundaries
The 12 semi-finalists represent varied geographies, outlooks, ages, and gender. From Williamsburg to Los Angeles, social entrepreneurs come from all types of communities and locales. UWS Jews was founded by a group of 20-something young professionals, and both NechamaComfort and Yedei Moshe were founded by working mothers. Additionally, the nonprofit ventures focused on issues ranging from community engagement and innovative education, to wellness and relationship education.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states that, “God showed Adam each generation and its searchers, each generation and its leaders – meaning, no two generations are alike. The world changes and leaders help us to adapt to the new without breaking faith with the old.”
From what we’ve learned, just as no two generations are alike, the same with no two leaders. Everyone who presented was extremely talented, articulate, passionate, and uniquely positioned to help better Jewish life.
2. Community is crucial
We structured the pitch night to allow each nonprofit team to watch the other organizations pitch. As the Accelerator was built on the values of collaboration and mutual learning, we wanted to foster these values amongst our semi-finalists as well.
The most common post-event comments were: how inspired the founders were; requests for each other’s contact information; and how honored they were to be included as part of this group. The OU Impact Accelerator’s vision is to serve as a hub for Jewish innovation within the Orthodox world. This experience confirmed our assumption and further demonstrated the need for building out the OU Impact Accelerator and the forum for nonprofit leaders to connect.
The power of communities was further emphasized by some of the nonprofits themselves. Yesh Tikva’s goal is to create a Jewish Fertility Community, and Hisoriri is an organization of college and graduate students who run shabbatot and “bring the ruach” off campus and into Jewish communities across the east coast. Yidmaps is a technology solution that is solely aimed at making Jewish communities easier to navigate by creating one map of all the kosher establishments, mikvaot, and more. Communities are important, and we are excited to continue connecting nonprofit innovators so that they can share expertise and enhance each other’s work as they grow.
3. Mental health awareness
More than 1 in 4 Americans above age 18 are living with mental illness. Twenty-five percent of the semi-finalist nonprofits were specifically focused on mental health. Imadi is a brand new initiative that assigns advocates to entire families that are struggling with mental illness. The advocates make sure basic needs including meals, carpools, childcare, and more are not falling by the wayside. No Shame on U aims to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, and Refuat HaNefesh provides education, resources, and varied online support for individuals with mental illness.
Even if not specifically focused on mental health, many of the other organizations also aim to bring peace of mind to those who are suffering with infant mortality, infertility, and community abandonment. The Jewish community is not immune from mental illness, and we must find ways to better support those who are suffering or have overcome mental health challenges.
4. We need to find more avenues for engagement
The busy lifestyle of children and adults of the 21st century does not allow much time for extracurricular activities. Especially for those of us whose children attend Jewish day school, with a full Hebrew and English curriculum. With so much material to cover, there is little time for extracurricular activities which often take a back seat to other priorities.
GrowTorah creates gardening curriculum for schools, which in turn provides a way for students to experience the Torah they are learning and better understand the Jewish blessings, laws, and faith required to grow new plants, fruits, and vegetables. Experiential gardening programs have been proven to create a more engaged, appreciative, and healthy Jewish community. The Young Talent Initiative (YTI) is a program for young men, ages 16-21, to channel their creativity towards creating and producing weekly music videos. The students learn that their creativity is an asset that can enhance all aspects of their lives. Yedei Moshe places teenagers for whom the traditional school environment does not work, in meaningful jobs that teach responsibility and respect, while building their confidence and skills by learning a new trade. And, for busy adults, TorahAnytime aggregates Torah shiurim through various digital platforms.
There is a reason that the Talmud tells us “all beginnings are difficult.” Having an idea to change the landscape of the Jewish community requires creativity, passion, and care. Taking the step to put ideas into action can be ten thousand times more difficult. The social entrepreneurs at the OU Impact Accelerator pitch night represented the individuals who didn’t just say “there should be…,” but rather, designed and launched creative solutions. We need to support the social entrepreneurs of our community and create forums to help them to connect and learn from each other.
As we approach Yom Kippur, may we all exhibit in the coming year a fraction of the enthusiasm and tenacity for our own ventures that these entrepreneurs have embodied in their attempts to build a brighter Jewish future.
Check out the OU Impact Accelerator website to learn more and invest in our community. You can see all the 2018 semi-finalists here: OU.org/accelerator/venture-finalists
Jenna Beltser is the founding director for the OU Impact Accelerator. Prior to joining the Orthodox Union, she worked at two financial technology startups and in investment banking. You can reach Jenna via email at BeltserJ@OU.org