A Return on the Investment in International Jewish Activists

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Danna Harman
Danna Harman

What does a Moroccan tour guide of Jewish Fez have in common with a klezmer-salsa fusion musician from the Parisian suburb of Boulogne? What might an Israeli principal of an Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Haifa have to chat about with a Uruguayan dedicated to bringing Shoah studies into Latin American classrooms?

The answer to both above questions, turns out, is – a lot.

This week, for the eighth year running, ROI - one of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network's flagship projects – has gathered 150 Jewish dynamic young adults from around the globe together in Jerusalem for its annual summit.

The eclectic mix of activists and community leaders who trudged into the Crowne Plaza hotel Sunday, from 37 different countries, were in for a week's worth of workshops, lectures, mentoring sessions, peer-led activities, focus groups, meals, coffee breaks and parties –officially pulling them into the ever growing so-called ROI community.

“ROI stands, of course, for Return On Investment,” says Justin Korda, ROI community’s executive director. “And the idea here is that the Jewish philanthropic world invests so much in large-scale outreach programs and organizations like Hillel and Birthright. And now, here we are creating a community which is made up of the return, or the products, of that communal investment in Jewish leadership.

With this mission in mind, Korda and an 18-person international summit team weed through hundreds of applications and chose a 120-strong group of 20 and 30 year olds whose bios are bursting at their young Jewish seams. A further 30 participants are former ROI-ers from previous years, invited back to mix in and foster a sense of the larger community. Thirty percent of the participants are Israeli, 30 percent are North Americans and the rest hail from places as far-flung as Rwanda, China, Sweden and Lithuania.

The organizers throw together the likes of Youness Abeddour (who, beside being a tour guide specializing in the Jewish quarter of his hometown Fez, also holds a master’s degree in cultural studies and makes documentary films about the history of Moroccan Jewry) with someone like David el Shatran, the klezmer-salsa guy (who, besides being the creator of the popular JewSalsa association, is also finishing a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and organizes massive Sukkoth parties on French college campuses).

They sprinkle in someone like Merav Ben-Nun (who along with building Haifa’s first Jewish-Arab community kindergarten also holds a PhD from NYU in international education and studied peace education initiatives in Belfast) and then stir it up with a person like Samuel Dresel (a Montevideano businessman who, in his free time, alongside serving as director of an organization that supports German Jews in Uruguay, built the "Shoah project," which introduces Holocaust and tolerance studies into the Latin American school curriculum).

Abeddour, el Shatran, Ben-Nun and Dresel would, but for ROI, most probably never have met.

The same can be said for, say, Jamie Susskind, the youngest-ever captain of the England School’s debating team who started speechmaking and debate workshops for young Israeli and Palestinian political activists; and for Guy Ben-Aharon, an Israel-born, Boston-based stage director who produces and tours with works by Israeli playwrights.

Ditto goes for Raphael Ouzan, a cute French-born Tel Avivian and world-renowned cyber and data security entrepreneur with his own high-tech company, who started coding professionally at age 13 and was named “Israel’s top young scientist” by the president; Marina Lecarteva, the red-headed young director of the Jewish community in Moldova; or Lana Volftsun from San Francisco, who directs the One Percent Foundation, the largest online giving circle in the U.S. that gets youngsters to donate 1 percent of their income to philanthropic causes.

But here they all are, rubbing sleep out of their eyes on the morning of Day Three, on line for omelets at the buffet breakfast line, discussing everything from alternative Jewish culture, fundraising strategies and online presence to who seems to be hooking up with who at the conference.

“We really see ourselves as a community of ‘reciprocity,’" continues Korda, sitting in the outside garden of the Crowne Plaza hotel, where the summit takes place, as the ROI-ers tumble out of a lecture by MK Ruth Calderon, grab soy milk cappuccinos and rush off to join the focus groups sessions, each one led by a leader of a major Jewish organization that, as recipients themselves of Schusterman foundation grants, are also gathered in Jerusalem this week for their own “Hazon” conference.

“We are bringing people together in the spirit of give-and-take. The idea is not a bilateral one: i.e., you help me and I help you. Rather, it’s more of a ‘pay it forward’ concept,” says Korda. “The idea is that we are now all part of a community, and one person will give help here and then might get help from someone else."

ROI is about collaboration on multiple levels, continues Korda, defining collaboration as anything from co-founding project ideas to offering advice, sharing skills, learning from each other to replicating a model from one community to another.
“We want that guy from Australia to learn from the cool project in Uruguay and say – ‘Huh, that could totally work in my community,’” he says.

“Draw upon the wisdom of people who think differently than you do,” advises Sandy Cardin, the Schusterman Philanthropic Network's president, echoing Korda’s hope in a memo to all the summit’s participants, in which he set out his top tips for making the most of the ROI week.

“Let the twin principles of YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out) guide you. Participate in this experience in a way that scares you!” is another top Cardin tip.

Abeddour from Fez admits that this was the first he had heard of YOLO or FOMO, but after a quick study he got into both fully this week. “Oh my god, I have met so many people who I can learn from and they can learn from me. It’s been incredible,” he grins. “The slogan talks about ‘connecting and creating,’ but it’s true – a true slogan. I get it. I really do."

As his last tip, Cardin reminds the ROI-ers what they ultimately, in between all the networking, eating and hanging out on bean bags in the common room, are here to do. “You are here to build a strong, vibrant future for the Jewish people and for Israel,” he tells them, wrapping up his advice: “Our personal agendas are important insomuch as they serve this larger goal. If we do this right, we will develop a common language through which communities across the world, led by all of you, will be able to learn from each other’s experiences and contribute to each other’s successes.”

ROI participants during one of the conference's activities.Credit: Adigital studio