ROI 120 Global Summit for Young Jewish Innovators

Day of Service at Jewish Agency Absorption Center in Mevasseret Zion. Photo: Adi Cohen.

Do you get a return on your investment when you bring together 120 young Jews from 28 countries? With participants like documentary filmmakers, microfinanciers, and political leaders, the annual return from ROI 120 is, according to its organizers, priceless. Held June 15-19, 2008, in Jerusalem, the third annual global summit for young Jewish innovators was founded by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and is a project of the Center for Leadership Initiatives in partnership with Taglit-Birthright Israel.

With over 400 applicants and only 120 spots, the 2008 ROI summit served up the cream of the crop of Jewish innovation. Spanish, Hebrew, English and Russian echoed through the lounge as young Jewish entrepreneurs bounced ideas off each other while munching on typical Israeli fare like borekas and watermelon at Beit Shmuel in between sessions like “Leveraging the Community” and “Speednetworking.”

“It feels so good to be inspired,” said Yoni Gordis, executive director of the CLI, after Project Better Place Founder Shai Agassi fired up the crowd at the opening session. “It feels like a drug.”

According to Justin Korda, director of Israel programs for CLI, the two main pieces of the conference are track networking sessions and skills development.

“In both these areas, the emphasis is on the participants themselves,” explained Korda, who lives in Israel but hails originally from Canada. “It’s all about participants presenting their own projects and finding partners and collaborating. The skills area is entirely peer-led. Instead of bringing people from the outside, the network here already contains these people and it gives them the opportunity to teach each other.”

Divided into seven themed tracks, the program is designed to tailor each participant’s experience to their individual needs. Tracks offered included Service, Arts and Culture, Visions of Israel, Environmentalism, Jewish Content & Technology, Global Jewish Community, and Youth Programs.

Twenty-four-year-old Lucy Nagawkar of Mumbai offered a morning wake-up yoga session called “And I learned to Breathe Again.” A software engineer for Warner Brothers, Nagawkar is the poster child for Jewish communal involvement in her hometown, helping to run activities in the Jewish community center of Mumbai that serves a Jewish population of 4,000. Though she arrived without a specific project to develop, after speaking with fellow ROI participants Nagawkar, is now inspired to create a program tailored to the high traffic of post-army Israelis that pass through India.

“So many Israeli soldiers that come to India to party,” said Nagawkar. “There is a way for them to come spend Shabbat weekend with a family, and take them out, instead of them staying in hotel. I met many soldiers here that said, ‘I was at airport for 24 hours and I didn’t know what to do.’ It’s a great way to get them to connect with Indian Jews.”

Other participants arrive with projects already in motion. Lacey Schwartz, a 31-year-old filmmaker and media producer from Manhattan, is currently working on a documentary called “Outside the Box” about her personal experience growing up in a white family after learning at 18 that she was the result of an affair her mother had with an African-American man.

“I’m learning how to be black and Jewish at the same time,” said Schwartz.

The Harvard Law graduate’s project was a Winner of the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award for Documentary Feature and a recipient of the 2006 ITVS Diversity Development Fund as well as the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Slingshot Fund and has been featured on CBS News, AOL Black Voices, Variety and Lilith magazines.

Twenty-eight-year-old Yoni Itzhak from Mevaseret Zion serves as the spokesman for the Israeli Ministry for Senior Citizens as well as the ministry for Jerusalem Affairs. He’s also a student at Hebrew University focusing on political science and international relations and will shortly be installed as the chairman of youth for the World Labor Zionist Movement. Never mind that he also serves as a captain of a company of 80 men in an infantry unit of the Israeli army reserves.

His project?

“We need a goal where every Jew all over the world comes together for one common front, like before during the establishment of Israel and her wars,” said Itzhak. “We need to put a frame to all Jewish Zionist movements.”

Itzhak is disturbed by both the apathy and fracture of the Jewish community both globally and inside Israel and noted the rapid decline he witnesses of the Israeli youth movements. “Ten years ago we had 400 members of the youth movements in Holon, where I am from,” he explained. “Today, even though the population of Holon has doubled, instead of 800 members there are 100.”

He sees education as the chief problem needing attention by the Israeli government and hopes to find the keys to solve these problems by galvanizing young Jews to action.

And while there are no strings attached to attending the summit, each participant is asked to come bearing a project to implement following their training at ROI.

“We encourage them to let us know what they are up to,” said Korda, “and we offer free publicity for the projects that they are running.”

Last year ROI handed out $100,000 for participants to launch their projects, awarding 35 grants to a pool of 56 applicants.

Esther Kustanowitz, director of Online Media for the ROI summit, serves as community manager during the rest of the year and tries to connect people with opportunities. This year she’s coordinating all the bloggers at the summit.

“Last year I tried to attend all sessions and do blogs for all of them,” she explained. “I figured I would deputize a group of bloggers with the opportunity to plug their projects. I got people from each track to volunteer and wrote up guidelines for them. My approach is that I want to keep their voices. It’s not straight journalism but personal, experiential personal journalism – not just on their individual tracks but also people that they meet – the things that happen offline.”

Kustanowitz, who has attended all three summits to date, emphasized that each ROI builds on lessons learned from previous years, with the focus on internalizing each session and improving for the future. “We learn and apply from the year before.”

“This is an intense experience, people get to know 120 people from different cities,” explained Kustanowitz. “If you live in New York, you often take for granted that there are 100 things you can do a in a given week, but in other areas of the US and also internationally, that’s not the case and the way they approach things is different. It helps to globalize your perspective… This is an excellent reality check to step outside your own experience.”