by Elana Itzkowitz, Special to The Bimah
Jerusalem, Israel – As cyber-activism and Facebook revolutions sweep the Middle East, Jewish social and business entrepreneurs, technology whizzes, thinkers and artists from Hong Kong to Zagreb, Sao Paulo to San Francisco, and Melbourne to Beersheva, converged on Jerusalem for the ROI Global Summit of Young Jewish Innovators, to connect and create new tools and novel approaches to shape the Jewish world and beyond.
ROI Community is an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries on six continents who are creating innovative ways to connect to Jewish life. At the heart of the program is peer-to-peer training and collaborative project-building led by ROI’s network of members from around the world.
“The ROI Summit was very impressive,” said Next Dor St. Louis Program Director and ROI participant Yoni Sarason. “You see face-to-face people who are dealing with the same issues in their own communities. It is a great opportunity to learn from their experience. These partnerships are crucial and help make the pieces of the Jewish community puzzle fit together.”
Sarason was one of 150 ROIers at the summit this year. Sarason has been in St. Louis since 2003, when he began college at Washington University.
Since graduating from Wash U, Sarason founded the St. Louis Moishe House, HipHopInspires.us and Next Dor STL. Sarason blogs extensively, running his own blog called TheStLouJew.com, and has spoken to small and large groups on Israel, the Middle East conflict, Jewish young adults in the USA, Judaism, social media and social entrepreneurship.
His most recent project, Next Dor, is a vibrant center of activity that builds community for young Jewish adults in St. Louis City, Missouri. “The concept behind Next Dor is creating a platform for community-building for young Jews,” says Sarason. “Next Dor functions as kind of a hospitality committee to young Jews moving to St. Louis. We get emails from people moving to St. Louis asking for help finding housing as well as connecting them to their peers.”
Next Dor engages young Jewish adults by providing coordination, networking and marketing support for individuals, groups and organizations who wish to connect to other young adults. Next Dor uses a space donated by Central Reform Congregation to host events that leverage the interests and talents of community members to provide engaging and diversified programs that often cost little or nothing to execute.
In the year since its inception, Next Dor has quickly grown to be one of the most dynamic organizations for young adults in St. Louis. More than 2000 visits have been made to Next Dor, connecting over 350 young adults. Sarason explains that “Next Dor enriches local Jewish experiences. For example, we sponsored a Tu Bishvat seder and connected with people who had no idea such tradition existed. We also hosted the first-ever Mimouna celebration in St. Louis. Additionally, we host visiting Israeli artists, activists and leverage each skill within our community and produce talent shows and the like.”
Sarason expressed how important attending summits like the ROI Young Innovators Summit is for social entrepreneurs like himself. “Next Dor by its nature is connected to innovative initiatives and fits naturally within the ROI Community. I see a lot of room for collaboration. For example, I’d like to screen in St. Louis fellow-ROIer Evan Kleinman’s Punk Jews documentary to expose alternative ways to connect Jewishly.”
What Sarason took away from his participation in ROI is a sense of social empowerment and inspiration. “The greatest challenge of social entrepreneurship” he explained, “is that if the idea is a good enough one to make money, why make it social/non-profit, and if it is important enough work, how to you find a way to generate enough revenue to support yourself.”
By providing a forum for young social entrepreneurs to come together and exchange ideas, ROI effectively “creates the social fabric in which there is no longer a dilemma” says Sarason. “ROI creates a community which socializes and normalizes the idea of being a part of something bigger, something that is worth putting aside immediate monetary concerns and stresses the importance of the greater cause.”
ROI Community not only provides networking opportunities for young Jewish innovators, but it also provides inspiration to continue their cause. Sarason explained that “knowing that I am now connected to a network of 600 young innovative, interesting, and creative individuals is truly powerful and helps me to push the boundaries of the community development work in which I have been engaged.”
ROI Community has played a key role in seeding and supporting other cutting-edge Jewish start-ups, including Moishe House, G-dcast, Jewcology, Omanoot.com, and Haggadot.com. ROI also offers an expansive Micro Grants program to help ROI members turn ideas into actual meaningful projects.
“These young Jewish social entrepreneurs are transforming the Jewish world through their vital initiatives and commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world,” said Lynn Schusterman, the American Jewish philanthropist who, in 2005, created ROI Community as a partnership with Taglit-Birthright Israel. “As change agents within their own communities, in Israel and beyond, these 20- and 30-somethings are key to ensuring the vibrancy of Jewish life 3,000 years down the road.”
“ROI Community creates a space where connection and innovation happens,” said Justin Korda, ROI Community Executive Director. “Our ultimate goal is to link up dynamic, creative young Jews, enabling them to translate their ideas into initiatives that bring the joy of Jewish life to Jews around the world and impact the world around them. Ultimately, we envision a thousand-strong network of innovators engaging a million people in diverse forms of Jewish life.”