The Schustermans: Making Change in the World Possible

by Andre Oboler

Last week 150 of the Jewish world’s leading social entrepreneurs were in Jerusalem for the sixth ROI Summit. The summit, the key annual event of the ROI Community, is made possible by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. This year they added 120 new members (first time summit participants) to the ROI community, as well as bringing 30 alumni to the summit to help create links cross the various summits cohorts. As someone attending ROI for the third time, this was truly the best summit yet. From technical innovators to artists, from those strengthening community, to those expanding our diversity, every angle was not only covered, but working in harmony. This alone is a colossal achievement.

The significant financial investment in bringing 150 people from all around the world together in Israel is perhaps the smallest investment of the Schustermans. It is far out weighted by Lynn’s personal investment of herself. Not only does she attend each summit, and get to know all the participants, but she gives of herself. Lynn emotionally invests in those ideas that strike a cord with her, and offers not only the encouragement that the best Jewish leaders give, but also an understanding of the risks, uncertainties, and daily challenges faced by Jewish innovators in their 20s and 30s. Old enough to have been heavily invested in by the community, but often still treated as too young to lead in our major institutions. Real innovation is revolutionary, and that is what Lynn invests in, shaping, changing and improving Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora, not only now but also for the future.

Pervading the ROI summit, but unknown to the 120 new participants until right at the end, was the spirit of Charles Schusterman, Lynn’s late husband. The Foundation started as a partnership between Charles and Lynn, and as Lynn told us, death does not need to end a relationship. It was that relationship that inspired a change in the world, and which has grown year on year, that is the real magic of the ROI Community. From a relationship between a loving couple, it has become a relationship of a family 600 hundred strong. At one point Lynn told the gathered participants she saw us all as her children, and how proud she was of us. She told us that she makes it possible, but we, the ROI Community members, make it happen. Lynn, and indeed Charles, have made it possible not only by bringing people together and making the connections that make projects logistically feasible, they have inspired us.

The final part of the ROI Summit program, the ROI Innovation Showcase, gives a window into both the world of the ROI Community, and role Lynn Schusterman plays in that world. The innovation Showcase was the culmination of a three day process involving both Summit participants and other members of the ROI Community. It started with an invitation to participants to submit project ideas in groups of at least three participants. In total 35 ideas were generated and entered into the online platform that managed this process. This alone is no small achievement given it was done around the summit programming, networking, and continuous discussion about people’s existing projects, ideas and day to day work. Once the deadline passed, all members of the ROI Community, including Summit participants, were able to vote for their favourite projects. 630 votes were cast and 92 comments were received, again all empowered by web-based technology. This shows how ROI brought summit participants together to think and plan collaboratively, and used technology to remove the barrier of distance for participation in the process. It shows the breadth of the community and of community participation.

The most popular three projects then presented in front of an expert panel. The panel included Bambi Sheleg, Naomi Fortis, Sandy Cardin and Yossi Vardi. The panel composition shows the depth the ROI Summit brings to the participants, the chance to learn from leading experts. Bambi Sheleg, is a journalist, commentator, editor and champion on pluralism and promotion of Jewish and Israeli identity. Naomi Fortis, is a highly claimed artistic director, co-director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture and former executive director of the Bat Sheva Dance Company. Sandy Cardin is a leader in Jewish communal service and President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Yossi Vardi is the godfather of the Israeli start-up industry, a strategic advisor to companies like Amazon and AOL, and a legendary community builder. Three ROI Projects were presented by the participants who created them to this panel.

There were two moments that standout for me in the Innovation Showcase. The first was after the first project was presented. Yossi Vardi had thought about the proposal, an idea that could loosely be described as connecting Jews together through technology, and he wanted to know about strategic partners, whether some backers had already been found, what the time line was and where in that process the project was currently sitting. Yossi’s question were perfectly reasonable given the presentation he was shown, complete with screenshots. The response however blew him away. The project proposers explained that they had the idea 48 hours ago, they naturally had not had time to get financial backing yet, but they thought they had a 150 people in the room in front of them who could help make this happen. The crowd of course cheered. This experience showed ROI’s hyper-incubation for innovation. With the right team, and the right environment, magic can happen.

When all the projects were presented Lyn Schusterman gave a direct response. One of them, the question of the future of involvement for those in their late 30s she assigned to the ROI and Foundation staff. My reading of what she said was that members of the community would likely be members for life. The more I reflect on the summit, the more I feel ROI is moving beyond community and it is becoming a closely knit family, despite its size. The other idea was a Jewish / Israel Global Peace Crops. Lynn explained the difficulty in getting enough cooperation from enough stake holders to really make this happen, and then announced she would work to overcome those difficulties and try to make this project a reality. From the ROI Community, this is a moment not only of “yes we can”, but of “yes we will”.

Lynn knows the challenge of causing change, she has for example been an integral part of the miracle that is Birthright, and she personally knows the challenges, pitfalls and frustrations all in the ROI Community face as they try to make a change in the world. Today, however, she is head of a 600 strong family of change makers. From the opportunities of vibrant Jewish living provided through Moishe Houses to the renewal of enjoyment in bible studies through G-d Cast, and online activism for causes like Gilad Shalit, a change is happening not only in the Jewish world, but in the world in general. Lynn Schusterman, Charles Schusterman and an ongoing relationship with the Jewish people is making that change possible.

Dr. Andre Oboler was an ROI Participant in 2008, 2010 and 2011. He is Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia and an expert in Online Public Diplomacy, Combating Online Antisemitism, and engaging Jewish Community organisations with new Technology.