Fellows showcase PresenTenseLA projects

“What if I told you that religious school students were skipping into the classrooms — counting down the days until they come back to school?”

Those were the words of Johannah Sohn, one of 12 fellows funded by PresenTenseLA who presented their “social entrepreneur” projects to hundreds of people gathered at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station Arts Center on the evening of May 22. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted PresenTenseLA’s inaugural “launch night,” the culmination of months of work by 12 aspiring local entrepreneurs, all of whom received skills-building assistance from The Federation and successful local entrepreneurs.

PresenTenseLA is Los Angeles’ installment of the international PresenTense project that started in 2006 in Israel and was further developed by Boston’s Jewish Federation in 2009. PresenTense aims to identify and assist what its organizers hope to be groundbreaking social projects that will help Jewish communities around the world, according to Julia Moss, the L.A. Federation’s PresenTenseLA coordinator. 

Funded with a $175,000 grant over three years from the Jewish Community Foundation and a three-year $110,000 grant from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, PresenTenseLA focuses on helping business-minded Jews. Although PresenTenseLA does not fund the fellows’ actual initiatives, it has helped them create business plans as well as facilitate connections with businessmen and investors who can provide further crucial assistance. 

Staging the event at the art gallery enclave of Bergamot Station lent the evening the feel of next-gen modernity that PresenTenseLA is all about. And one after another Wednesday evening, the Jewish fellows presented their ideas in TED talks fashion — short speeches that gave the audience a snapshot of their innovative projects. 

Sohn’s project, “Virtual Israel,” is an online video game that will allow Hebrew school students to role-play as European Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine between 1912 and 1915. 

From purchasing a visa stamp to exploring the streets of Neve Tzedek, Sohn envisions her game introducing something into the Hebrew school curricula that she feels is missing — fun. 

Sohn’s project, in PresenTenseLA terminology, is in its “growth stage,” meaning she has already drafted budgets and is at the point where she’ll be ready to launch “Virtual Israel” within one year if she can secure funding — a major segment of which is to pay about $22,500 for 15 laptops so more students can use it.

Fifth-grade Hebrew school students at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, where Sohn is the Jewish Learning Community director, are already testing a pilot version of the game.

“We are a people who have always come up with new ways to engage in Jewish life,” Moss said. “We’ve survived for thousands of years because we are constantly looking at the landscape and adapting.”

PresenTenseLA fellow Jason Youdeem speaks with an attendee about his venture, “30 Years After Fellowship,” which will aim to increase civic engagement among Iranian-American Jews. 

Rachelle Minteer, another fellow, plans to open a program for L.A. Jews struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. The catch? Her program, Jewish Recovery Services, will bring recovering addicts to a rehabilitation center in Israel. Minteer, who has been sober for five years, is planning a site visit to a potential partner rehab facility outside of Jerusalem. 

Launch night was the culmination of a process that began in September, when 27 applicants submitted their visions to PresenTenseLA. The 12 fellows were selected in November, and since then they have been creating concrete businesses with the assistance of coaches and mentors — from young professionals with on-the-ground experience to seasoned professionals, from all corners of Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

Michal Brous, for example, was mentored by Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher? and inventor of the popular pretzel challah. Brous’ project, Sweets2Share, will operate out of the Got Kosher? storefront on Pico Boulevard, where she will bake and sell kosher pastries, donating one pastry to Global Kindness for every pastry sold. The sweets will be included as part of the food packages Global Kindness distributes to more than 350 needy families in Los Angeles and around the world.

Brous, who baked hundreds of her pastries for launch night, will first move to Israel for one year with her husband and three children to study at the Tadmor culinary school to become a pastry chef. She hopes to establish her presence at Got Kosher? following her graduation.

Moss said she hopes PresenTenseLA will thrive for many years to come, as it is particularly helpful to the many young Jews who want to spread Judaism, but won’t (or financially can’t) become members of a synagogue.

“Young adults are not joining synagogues, and the JCC system has struggled for so long,” Moss said. 

As Federation president and CEO Jay Sanderson put it, these types of projects are one way of working with young Jews “as they look to innovation and new methods, languages and technologies to express themselves.”

One fellow who received a particularly energetic reaction from the crowd was Ashley Gleitman Waterman, whose program, “Tell and Retell,” will train grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the art of storytelling. These storytellers — who will be trained by actors and professional storytellers — will then use their skills and stories to educate their peers about the Holocaust.

By next year, Waterman hopes to have trained enough storytellers to educate more than 100 teenagers about the Holocaust.

Once survivors of the Holocaust are no longer with us, Waterman believes, the grandchildren will be the ones to share stories of what their grandparents experienced.

“When they tell them, we think there will be a very profound effect.”

The $285,000 in grants received by Federation will allow PresenTenseLA to operate for the next few years, and Moss hopes that the program becomes a mainstay in Los Angeles.

“I can’t imagine that this won’t continue for years to come,” Moss said. “There are always going to be people creating.”