The ROI Community: Connecting and creating to shape the Jewish future

Innovation has become one of those buzzwords applied to ventures ranging from an educational technique to an iPhone app, from an environmental startup to an unusual approach to arts and culture. This wide definition, coupled with the word’s overuse, causes some to roll their eyes. For others, the word suggests potential — the opportunity to apply fresh ideas to generate change.

For the last decade, I’ve been a consultant for the ROI Community, a pre-eminent training ground and network for Jewish innovators. Founded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman in 2006 with some additional funding partners and now entirely funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the network has connected more than 1,000 creative young Jews in upward of 50 countries. Its hallmark ROI Summit (held annually except for a 2014 sabbatical) has yielded professional partnerships and collaborations (and marriages and children), and a network of trusted advisers upon whom participants can call for support and advice. ROIers are everywhere, from Uruguay to Germany, Australia to China and throughout the United States. (See sidebar for profiles of some Los Angeles ROIers.) 

“ROI was born in the context of Birthright Israel and the questions about follow-up and what’s sustainable, how to keep people connected to Israel,” Justin Korda, ROI executive director, said in an interview. “We used the term ‘innovators,’ but what we meant were those who were creating new pathways to connect and live Jewishly — young people who were creating community for themselves and their peers in a bottom-up way.”

“The essence of ROI — how to gather great young Jewish minds from around the world, give them skills training, network them and help them go back into the world to enhance the Jewish community and the world at large — is an idea that Schusterman has had forever,” Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Family Foundation, said in an interview at this year’s summit in Jerusalem.

ROI’s bumpy start

When I arrived at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in Jerusalem in 2006 for ROI 120, as it was known in that first year, I had been assigned the somewhat undefined role of “new media track facilitator,” moderating conversations for young Jews making inroads in Internet-based projects — from Sarah Lefton’s G-dcast (then a single cartoon based on a Torah portion, now an educational technology company) to Ariel Beery’s and Aharon Horwitz’s PresenTense (then a magazine, for which I was an editor, but now an international innovators’ fellowship). 

Other track facilitators included Miri Eisin, then spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces; Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal; Eytan Schwartz, winner of “The Ambassador,” an Israeli reality show that focused on creating better PR for Israel (think “The Apprentice,” sans Trump); and others. Every morning, we facilitators met to try to develop the program. We understood the event’s vague framework was modeled like a youth Knesset (hence the 120 members) and that its funders, which included Birthright Israel and the Schusterman Family Foundation, were hoping to find some kind of unified vision for the Jewish future. 

Korda (the only full-time staff member who has attended all nine summits) remembers ROI’s first year as an experience in which “a lot more went wrong than went right.” Although initially conceived as a follow-up gathering after Birthright and other programs (participants were ages 18 to 36), Korda said, in reality, the event became, “Let’s bring everyone together and see what happens, without one concrete plan for what would happen the day after.” 

ROI’s greatest asset, according to Korda, was that Lynn Schusterman (see sidebar for interview), the primary funder, “realized this was one of those moments when failure could be the greatest opportunity for learning. She eventually made it possible for us to do a deep dive into what was and wasn’t good about it, and move forward from there. We had absolutely no idea then it was going to look like this today.”

Adaptation: ROI evolved

“ROI is much more evolutionary than revolutionary,” Cardin said. “We adapted and changed based on the times, the people and the feedback from participants. This is something of which we are very proud, and it’s a hallmark of the program that we respond to advice and constructive criticism.”

As the Birthright partnership receded, the age range for participants was extended to 40. The network grew, the team expanded and the vision was clarified. (For the record, from 2006-14, I consulted for ROI in various communications-related roles. Although I was not paid as a consultant for the 2015 Summit, ROI paid for my transportation to Israel and accommodations.) 

“It took several years of trial and error, soul-searching and hard work to shape the ROI program into the ROI Community,” Schusterman explained. “In the first few years, we got to see the power of these gatherings and the resulting connections that spanned the globe. It inspired us to think about how we could transform an annual gathering into a year-round community.” 

Finding ‘Connect and Create’

In the early years, ROIers often returned to their home communities feeling shell shocked, unsure if the energy and enthusiasm shared at the summit could translate to those who hadn’t experienced it. They knew the group’s acronym, for the business term “return on investment,” in this case with the investment being the money spent to develop Jewish leadership programs and the return being the alumni of those programs. They knew the goal was to encourage “Jewish innovators,” but it took five years into the experiment and a brand strategy process for ROI to come up with a simple but significant slogan: “Connect and Create.” 

“This captures what the mission is,” Korda said, “us wanting to connect our members and create new things in the world, and hoping that they will connect more and more people Jewishly and create new ways to experience those connections.”

How much does community cost?

Let’s lay it on the table: ROI had a big boost from the start by being underwritten by Schusterman, a billionaire who believes so strongly in the experience that she is willing to make a major, ongoing financial commitment to support it. The public filings available on ROI Community reveal its annual budget as close to $4 million, which includes the summit, micro-grants to participants (in 2014, just over 600 of them) and the staff of 10. Summit participants enjoy the perks of ROI, including a mostly paid round trip to Israel and five days in a lovely hotel, with all food and drink covered; but some wonder, couldn’t this money be used for something else? 

This financial tension represents a challenge for bootstrapping Jewish innovators, and Korda addresses it head-on if you ask him, or even if you don’t, pre-emptively mentioning it in his opening speech at ROI. “We have been criticized in the past about some of the grandiose programming, but we take a no-apology approach,” he said. “We’re transparent about what we’re trying to accomplish.” 

“This is how people should be treated and engaged,” Cardin said. “We want to model the kind of engagement, the kind of demonstration of appreciation, sharing of values that we hope people will encounter in every engagement with Jewish life.”

For Korda, the high-quality treatment is an important part of ROI’s professional presentation. “From the materials to the way we think about making use of people’s time, we try to be professional and we really value humor. We know that human interactions aren’t always perfect, and the fun and playful is an important ingredient in creating community.” 

An ‘Open Space’ for conversation: Crafting the crafted gathering

The ROI Summit is designed to reflect the sponsoring organization’s desired outcomes. Through networking and facilitation methodologies — including such “technologies” as Open Space, Speed Networking and Case Studies — the program helps participants focus on opening creative outlets, creating safe space and providing large group and small “pod” opportunities for interaction. 

If you’re wondering what kinds of questions today’s young Jews think about, here is a partial list. These are just a few of the topics posted during Open Space at the 2015 Summit — original syntax and wording is preserved: 

What are our hang-ups about our money? Do Jews lack a clear narrative? How to scale from the idea phase? The continuity of the Jewish people. How to create a unified brand of Jewish community that most can resonate with? How can we push the established Jewish community to change and engage the next generation? How do we work with people we don’t agree with or view as “the problem”? How to make Israel a world-class place for artists and musicians? How can we increase Arab voter participation? Can interfaith marriage save the Jewish people? Let’s talk about BDS (please come with open hearts). Why should I give an F@#) about Israel? Fighting assimilation? How to improve Jewish dating? How to create a professional environment that makes space for personal profit? Disabilities — how can we collaborate more and include all? Is cultural Judaism bad for Jewish continuity? How can we create a collaborative and more productive nonprofit sector? Why do we feel like impostors and what should we do about it? Future of venture capital? How to balance the individually driven ego and the need for leadership and action? How to ensure that the “unsexy” causes still get funding? 

It’s easy to generate excitement around a summit of creative 20- and 30-somethings; but after participants have returned to their countries of origin, maintaining momentum is a challenge. Post-summit meet-ups happen, but the flurry of Facebook activity eventually wanes as people return to their lives. ROI’s solution is the idea of ROI 360: After a five-day, intensive summit, how can ROIers continue to “connect and create” during the other 360 days of the year? 

Having strong connectors in the ROI office helps keep ROI connections alive. Elissa Krycer, an Australian-born olah (émigré to Israel) has been working as ROI Community manager since 2010 and always seems to know where everyone in the network is and what they’re doing. She especially loves connecting ROI network members converging on events in the larger community — from Jewish conferences such as Limmud and Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, or secular experiences such as music-tech-film festival South by Southwest in Texas, and Midburn, the Middle East’s version of Burning Man — where they can reunite with ROIers and connect with new people outside the network, widening their connections and creative impact. 

Another increasingly important benefit of ROI 360 — for participants, for the network, as well as for communities around the world — is the foundation’s continued support, including micro-grants, Grassroots@ROI Initiatives and Connection Points gatherings. 

The micro-grants are another example of a successful ROI pivot. ROI originally offered large grants to a select pool of ROIers, creating massive competition and an intensive grant application process. Today, ROI offers two grants of up to $1,000 each to ROI members per year to be used for purposes such as “Go Professional” (professional development courses), “Go Network” (funding toward conference participation) and “Go Digital” (technology grants). The grant application process is much simpler and ROIers are encouraged to collaborate, sometimes receiving additional grant incentives for collaborative projects.

“These investments and others have helped ROIers launch new initiatives, transition startups into established organizations and take on significant leadership roles at the local, regional and international level in the Jewish community,” Schusterman said. 

The reporting system for micro-grants also provides “an ongoing connection” back to ROI headquarters in Jerusalem, Krycer added. “We invest in people’s professional development through micro-grants, and they send a report. This rekindles the connection.”

Two other modes of ROI support rely on ROIers’ initiative and community leadership: Grassroots@ROI Initiatives fund ROIer-spearheaded local events or programs; and Connection Points gatherings are major immersive events launched by ROI members partnering with non-ROIers to make an impact either locally or on a specific interest group, for instance, Eighteen:22, a summit for LGBTQ community leaders worldwide, held in Salzburg, Austria, in August; and The Harvest, a gathering of farm and food professionals for dialogue on creating healthier, more sustainable communities, held at the end of September.

“ROI is full of talented entrepreneurs and professionals, and we want to help each of them tap into the incredible power the collective has to offer and to contribute what they can,” Schusterman said.

Measuring impact

ROI’s Connect and Create mission continues through a community of thousands of individuals worldwide who, its leaders hope, will impact millions. “We will continue to make ROI as supportive, diverse and beneficial as possible and to meet the evolving needs of the members and communities we serve,” Schusterman said. 

To do this, the Schusterman Foundation and the ROI Community are expanding their partnerships to include the Genesis Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Natan Fund and others to help ROIers move their initiatives forward, and in generally strengthening the funding opportunities available for innovative approaches to Jewish connection, especially those spearheaded by younger people.

One major challenge with a network as large and global as the ROI Community is tracking the outcomes. To explain, Korda invokes network theory, which features three network circles: the personal network, an immediate group of 10 to 15 people; the performance network, the people on whom you rely to get projects done day-to-day; and the strategic network, a much broader outer circle of acquaintances who can be sourced to find new collaborators to accomplish something specific. 

“The idea of the strategic network involves people finding the right connections or advice at the right time, that leads to new partners, funding or jobs. These quieter connections create the paradigm shifts,” he said.

Korda explained that there is tremendous overlap among many projects, as well as wide variations in the depth of ROI-helmed experiences. Among ROIer-created projects are cutting-edge online content such as G-dcast, which uses short videos to engage people in Jewish content, or, a site where users can upload, find and share content toward creating their own personalized Passover haggadot. (Both of these companies’ founders are close friends of mine from ROI, but the examples were Korda’s.) On the other hand, ROIers are also involved in deep service learning programs, such as Tevel B’Tzedek in Nepal and Innovation: Africa. 

When looking at a program that “reaches 20 people in a deep way, or 20,000 people a week online for up to 10 minutes,” Korda asked, “how do we compare and determine who’s having a bigger impact in the world?” And even those 20,000 people for 10 minutes might have an experience that deepens over time and ends up equivalent to other “immersive” experiences. “A 10-minute video can be an important gateway, and we never know how the deep-impact program will affect someone in 20 years.” 

Although program overlap represents a challenge to getting a “proper number” of people impacted, Korda said, “Ultimately what we want is maximum overlap. We want people engaging in and then finding out about Moishe House [communal housing and programming targeting Jewish 20-somethings] and [website for the Jewish environmental movement] and everything else, and getting more deeply engaged.”

Cardin explained that ROI is not, as some may perceive, a closed circle with no access for outside people and organizations. “ROI is a laboratory: We hope that what comes out is something from which every community learns and borrows. It’s a vehicle for positive change in the Jewish community writ large. We want every Jewish community to feel like you’re part of ROI. If the theory of change is right and we do it right, the community itself will become leaders of the local communities and create that change.” 

Korda, too, sees the impact beyond the immediate network, even imagining a world where ROI’s work is being done by other community entities. “We have a limited number of [summit] spots every year, but the spirit of what we do, connecting and creating in meaningful ways that lead to positive change in the Jewish world, if it can spread, we’re happy to see it spread. If every organization was working more effectively to attract more and more Jewish people, modeling the kinds of values that are important, and there would not be a need for ROI because it’d be taking place elsewhere … that would definitely be a success.”

Looking to the future

Korda recently relocated to the San Diego area for a year to be closer to family and to experience a different area of ROI’s global network. “There is a lot of fantastic ideation in headquarters in Jerusalem, where the staff primarily sits,” Korda said a few weeks before his move. “Now I have an opportunity to stay involved in the strategic direction and get more involved in local programming on the West Coast and to put a little bit of focus on Latin America.” (According to, more than 130 ROI members are in Latin America.) 

Korda works from Encinitas, at the North County Hub at the Leichtag Foundation, which he called “one of the most exciting Jewish experiments on the West Coast,” mentioning that this area has “lots of Jewish initiatives relevant to ROI and its constellation.”  

Korda isn’t just the executive director of this constellation; he has his own Jewish innovation story, dating back to high school attempts to program “outside the organizational structure to energize young Jewish students on college campuses.

“We got a few donors in the community to put in a few dollars, but more importantly was their vote of confidence that offered a huge amount of push, energy and motivation. That’s how Lynn’s gone about doing things,” Korda said. 

“One of the things we did for the members in the ROI Community is to give them a push, our vote of confidence, our thanks for putting in the time to make the Jewish world a better place.” 

ROI local: The SoCal community members

If you’re involved in the Los Angeles Jewish community, you’ve probably already encountered the work of local ROI Community members: They’re artists, communicators, community-builders, innovators and entrepreneurs working at many of our community programs and organizations, and on behalf of their own projects, all over the city. (This list represents a small number of the ROIers in L.A., many of whom are close friends of mine.)

Martin Storrow, former director of leadership development for Moishe House, now an independent consultant on leadership and talent-development projects, had always considered ROI to be the “Holy Grail of the Jewish gathering.” When he arrived for his first summit last June as one of 150 participants, he was “blown away by the scope and the scale. Every moment had been planned very mindfully and intentionally: where we were physically in the space, who was around, the flow of the program, the use of technology,” he said, referring in particular to an app that enabled ROIers to schedule “brain dates” with their fellow participants. 

ROI first-timer Aaron Henne, founder of L.A.-based Theatre Dybbuk, quickly realized at June’s summit that “there was a master plan” with a “focus on creativity.” 

“I met people from all over. In facilitated discussions, and brain dates, I felt I had touch points with a wide variety of people. The summit’s last night featured a party with food, drink and dancing. I had been in serious brain mode for 72 hours straight with very little downtime; I appreciated the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos that created a real community.” 

ROIers don’t always stay in the same place or organization after their summit experience, but bring a spirit of creativity and innovation to whatever they do. Rabbi Sarah Bassin was the executive director of New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change when she attended ROI in 2013; today she is associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Micah Fitzerman-Blue attended the 2013 summit as a comedy writer and co-founder of East Side Jews; now he’s on the Emmy Award-winning writing team for the critically acclaimed Amazon Prime show “Transparent.” Josh Feldman, formerly of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Artists and a co-organizer of the Asylum Arts: International Jewish Artist Retreat (a Schusterman Connection Points gathering), is now director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity and the assistant dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University. 

And when it comes to the membership benefits of the ROI Community, every ROIer identifies something different and personally specific. 

David Katz (Sherman Oaks, 2009 and 2010 summits), former director of J’Burgh, a community for Pittsburgh’s Jewish grad students and young adults, said that access to the Schusterman Foundation Job Hub was what “ultimately led me to my role here in Los Angeles as the new executive director for Hillel 818.” 

Janelle Eagle, (Toluca Lake, 2012 summit), a freelance TV producer and co-creator of 2wice Blessed (a project curating positive images and stories about LGBTQ Jews), is most appreciative of the micro-grants providing “access to potentially cost-prohibitive opportunities to stay engaged with the Jewish world.” She said that ROI’s “global Jewish mafia” provided her the opportunity to “interact with Jews from so many different parts of the world who are experiencing a completely different Jewish identity than my own.” Eagle remembered one discussion with a Chabad Jew about whether tradition or inclusion was more effective in ensuring the Jewish future. “Despite his better judgment, I think he heard me, and I gained an appreciation for his passion for the Jewish people.” 

Judith Prays (Pico-Robertson, 2013 summit), an artist who creates fresh, engaging, meaningful Jewish experiences, remembered “meaningful conversations,” and said that “meeting big-minded people raises the bar for what is possible, and the grants further this empowerment in turning ideas into reality.” 

“ROI has connected me to so many incredible individuals from all over the world,” said Chari Pere (Pico-Robertson, 2009 and 2010 summits), a freelance cartoonist and president and founder of Hey Yiddle Diddle Productions. “Nothing can replace the in-person networking and shared experiences.” Pere discovered the West Coast ROIer support system when she moved from New York to Los Angeles after she was married. Pere added that her collaboration with Israeli ROIer Inbal Freund on the ROI-funded Unmasked Comics for Social Change project “set the bar for what a healthy, creative collaboration should be.” The duo created a three-page comic about Ariella Dadon, an agunah who was denied a get (Jewish divorce) by her abusive, unfaithful husband. “Her inspirational true story still brings us recognition online every year, and our dream is to turn this story into a full-length graphic novel,” Pere said.

Sam Heller (Westwood, 2009 summit), owner of Sam Heller Communications, echoed Eagle, Prays and Pere on the value of the interactive, international network, and added, “I have become more familiar with social justice issues in a variety of Jewish communities while learning innovative approaches and ideas from my colleagues.” 

Eileen Levinson (Pico-Robertson, 2007 and 2010 summits), founder of ” target=”_blank”>custom&, both of which use design to create tools for contemporary, personalized engagement in Jewish ritual, highlighted the Asylum artists retreat (one of the first Connection Points gatherings). 

“It was the first time that there was an opportunity to let Jewish artists connect on their own terms, without a top-down vision of what it meant to be Jewish or creative, and showed an understanding that the needs of artists are different than the needs of organizations or organizational leaders. This showed a high level of sophistication in the ROI Community’s thinking,” Levinson said. 

“What ROI has done better than virtually every other program is blend the maker community and the context community effectively,” said Shawn Landres, Jumpstart Labs co-founder and UCLA Luskin Civil Society Fellow, noting that Schusterman’s way of operation “left me very impressed.” 

“Watching how a program is laid out, how staff interact with one another, how leadership puts itself out there — that certainly has had an impact on how I view organized communities,” he said. 

“You can be critical of different choices or processes, you can be frustrated with not getting the answers or decisions you want, but at the end of the day, when I see how well people treat each other within the foundation’s organization and networks, I am left with the fundamental impression that the broader Jewish community, which otherwise feels quite dysfunctional, could actually work if we treated each other with more respect and dignity,” Landres said.

Lynn Schusterman: Making it possible for Jewish innovators to create

Lynn Schusterman has been at every ROI Summit (see main article) since 2006 and at dozens of other Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation programs year round, to see for herself how her considerable investment in the Jewish future is yielding fruit. Schusterman can be as tough as you’d expect a billionaire to be (Forbes listed her net worth as $3.5 billion), insisting on high standards for foundation programs and projects. But when ROI participants experience sadness or grief, the petite septuagenarian philanthropist with a penchant for wearing pinks and purples is right there with them to offer words of wisdom and comfort. (When my mother died, I got a moving, personal email from Schusterman, as well as an in-person offer to be a substitute mother or grandmother if I needed it.) 

It is Schusterman’s unique balance of sense, sass, collaboration and compassion that endears her to ROIers and other Schusterman program participants. And she, in return, deeply respects her staff team and the young innovators and creators in her orbit. She is more than satisfied that her money is well spent; in an email interview with the Jewish Journal, she said that the response to ROI has “exceeded our expectations on every level” and “helped to shape her philanthropy over the past decade.”

The past three decades have seen the blossoming of many Schusterman seeds. In addition to funding individual initiatives spearheaded by ROIers (see main story), the foundation also has been inspired to develop opportunities that expand those efforts. During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the foundation created Eitanim micro-grants to support ROIers who were providing relief for families whose loved ones were serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and also to help people better understand Israel’s position internationally. A partnership with Indiegogo helps support ROI network members through matching grants, and Schusterman also is a major sponsor and proponent of the Natan Fund’s Amplifier, a network of giving circles engaging young people to give in meaningful, fun and impactful ways. 

This spring, the foundation launched OLAM, a partnership with many organizations to deepen Israel and the Jewish community’s impact on global humanitarian issues. REALITY trips bring socially minded individuals to Israel for a life-changing leadership development experience. And the foundation is always bringing more young entrepreneurs and influencers into the ROI Community; a partnership with Forbes launched a Social Impact Competition at the Under 30 Summit in October. 

Schusterman is passionate about many things — strengthening Jewish community worldwide and in Israel, investing in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. But she also has an intensely passionate commitment to what she described as the “strongest thread that binds us as a global people [is] our shared commitment to repair the world, to serve others, to build strong families and communities, to ensure all have the opportunity to learn, to seek justice and to treat everyone with mercy, kindness, care and respect. I am passionate about helping the next generation of Jews draw on these values to inform the way they work, love, live and give. And I am passionate about helping to build a future for the Jewish people that is diverse and welcoming, deeply connected to Israel and committed to making the world a better place.”

An unflinching supporter of Israel, Schusterman notes special pride in the work of young campus and community leaders supporting Israel during what she called a “critical time.” 

“While some of their fellow students and colleagues are focused on isolating and de-legitimizing Israel, they are defining a new narrative. They are finding ways to help more people discover Israel’s promise and potential as a haven for diversity, democracy, innovation and progress. We need more voices, to be sure, but their efforts are a model to all those who believe change is possible.”

At ROI Summits, Schusterman is known to repeat what has become a mantra for her and for the foundation that bears her family name: Her money may “make it possible” for ROIers to pursue their visions, but “they make it happen.” 

When her husband, Charles, known as “Charlie,” died in 2000, Lynn took over as chairwoman of the foundation, moving into a largely male-dominated philanthropic world. “It was not easy, but I was determined, and had benefited from the wisdom and partnership of many incredible role models and peers. I learned to develop my own leadership style, find the core issues on which to focus my energy and, most importantly, develop a talented, professional staff to help me guide the foundation into the 21st century. My experience has taught me that women must play a major — and equal — role in shaping the Jewish future.” 

With more women rising to high positions in Jewish philanthropy and communal leadership and leading the way in Jewish innovation, she sees a future of “smart, passionate, capable Jewish women — my own granddaughters included — who will influence and change our community in unimaginable and positive ways.”

Schusterman continues her relationship with her late husband through her work: One early Schusterman young leadership program was known as “the Charlies”; and she quotes him often in speeches and conversations. 

“Charlie used to say, ‘When you can get a bright and talented mind at a young age, you’ve got a lot with which to work.’ I imagine that when he said those words, he had in mind the types of young Jewish leaders we are engaging today,” Schusterman said. “I see in so many of them the qualities that made Charlie such an inspiring and unique leader. He was an iconoclast, willing to take calculated risks in the pursuit of success. He continued to push himself to defy the status quo, to forge ahead no matter the forecast or circumstance and, time and again, he went out of his way to care for others. Charlie would be so proud of what these young people are accomplishing today and, in true Charlie fashion, would encourage them to walk to the very edge of their comfort zone and then take another step.” 

Despite her loss and her serious approach to philanthropy, Schusterman knows there is much to celebrate — she is famous in ROI circles for always being one of the first on the dance floor. 

“People often ask why I remain so optimistic, even in the face of the complex challenges we are facing in the Jewish world, in Israel and beyond,” Schusterman said. “It’s because I am so impressed and inspired by the young people I meet. It is their ideas and their belief in what we can accomplish together that gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me traveling the world at 76 years old.”

Schusterman formally speaks at least once during each ROI Summit, providing inspiring overall context, but the rest of the time, she sits with participants between sessions or at meals, asking them about their communities and learning about their projects. While other funders might avoid contact with potential grant applicants, Schusterman seeks it out. 

“ROIers are always reaching out to me to share their appreciation for the experiences, opportunities and connections we have provided and also to express their excitement about taking the next step in their leadership journey,” she said. “I am investing in them because they hold the keys to a vibrant Jewish future, and that investment is paying off. Every day I get to see how much potential rests in the next generation and how eager they are to create positive change. We need their passion, creativity and resolve. And we need it now.”

Much of today’s Jewish organizational energy focuses on drawing young Jews — a demographic ranging from as early as 18 and extending, in some organizational cases, to age 45. With the foundation targeting this demographic with many of its programs, Schusterman explained, the key is to be less “proscriptive” and “rather, to provide opportunities to explore their identities, to connect with the global Jewish community and to find their place in a world that needs them. They will make the magic happen.” 

As for ROI, Schusterman is most proud of the network’s diversity: The ROI Community has members from big cities and small towns in more than 50 countries, including those who are “secular, religious, gay, straight, liberal, conservative and everything in between.” 

She is passionate about inclusion and equality, and has been a particularly ardent supporter of Jewish LGBTQ causes; ROI’s Connection Point gathering for LGBTQ leaders, Eighteen:22 (

ROI Community Summit links new leaders

In 2010, Judith Prays, a 26-year-old multimedia expert from Long Beach, created a great deal of buzz (CNN, Time, “The Colbert Report”) by inventing Pheromone Parties, a matchmaking experiment based on scent. 

Three years later, Prays’ quirky creativity, coupled with her newfound passion for Judaism, garnered the UCLA film school grad a coveted place at this year’s ROI Community Summit, a Jerusalem-based happening that brought together 150 young Jewish entrepreneurs from 38 countries for five intensive days of networking, innovating and fun beginning June 9. 

A project of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, ROI — which stands for Return on Investment — has been likened to a leadership incubator. It is “creating the next cohort of Jewish leaders,” No’a Gorlin, the organization’s associate executive director, told the Journal. “By virtue of being part of ROI, the next generation will be more connected and inspired by one another.”

In an interview with Haaretz, ROI Executive Director Justin Korda said 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.”

ROI, founded in 2005, offers its participants micro-grants that enable them to develop ideas and projects that can be of value to the Jewish community. If the project is a bust, Gorlin said, “It’s not a failure if they learn from their experiences. We want to see these young people create Jewish continuity in their own image.”

For the Jewish world to have any hope of galvanizing its largely unaffiliated younger generation, she said, it has to engage them on their terms and appeal to their life experiences. 

“One of the things we’ve observed is that when they build a community, it may be a physical community or it may be an online community. It’s a new kind of Jewish communal life, and it’s a challenge for the established Jewish community,” Gorlin said. 

The conference offered a modern take on traditional leadership sessions geared toward millennials — those in their 20s and 30s. There were icebreakers, mentoring sessions, peer-led activities, lectures by leading educational and social entrepreneurs, a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the Israel Museum and a whole lot of goal-oriented shmoozing, generally in the vicinity of food. 

In a takeoff on speed dating, participants (120 first-timers and 30 veterans of previous summits chosen to foster a sense of community) were given just a couple of minutes to hone their pitch before moving on to the next person. 

At a poolside barbecue in Jerusalem, Prays, one of several Californians taking part in the summit, said the experience strengthened her resolve to “brand” God as a way to connect to her mostly secular peers. If you walk into a room of millennials and mention the word God, “it shuts down conversation, and I’m trying to figure out a way to address that,” said Prays, who is now religiously observant and living in Pico-Robertson. 

Prays said many in her “demographic” are “repulsed” by the establishment organizations that have long played an important role in reaching out to young Jews. She’s currently creating a crowdsourcing platform and community for Torah commentary, chavruta study and Torah-inspired art. 

Evan Bregman, 27, director of digital media at Electus, a production studio founded by former NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman, echoed Prays’ assertion that to reach young Jews, the Jewish community has to understand what interests them and why. 

In the 21st century, he said, most young people get their news via social media, which floods them with information and opinions. One of Bregman’s goals is to work with day schools and other institutions to teach students how to distinguish between various news sources. 

“They should know the difference between an article in the Jewish Journal and a blog, and between a credible blogger and one [who] isn’t,” he said. 

Failure to know the difference can lead to everything from cyber-bullying to brainwashing, he warned. 

While students learn how to interpret pieces of literature in school, Bregman noted that “they’ve never been taught how to interpret” what they see on Facebook or Twitter or a blog post. 

Although Sarah Passe, 29, a Los Angeles-based business development executive at Creative Artists Agency and a rising star in the digital entertainment industry, knows all about networking, she said meeting ROI veterans strengthened her longtime resolve to help BBYO, the Jewish youth organization where she serves as an adviser, to expand its alumni outreach. 

“BBYO has an incredible alumni network, but it’s not tapping in the way it could,” Passe mused out loud. “I’d like to tap into the many BBYO alumni working in entertainment via personal relationships and shared experiences.” 

Michelle Collins, a 31-year-old comedian, writer ( and producer (Kathy Griffin’s talk show) in Los Angeles, expressed the belief that she was getting more from the conference — her third ROI summit — than she was contributing. 

“I’m very selfish. I work for me,” Collins said with a smile just before taking part in a talent show presented by ROI participants in a hotel space transformed into a performance venue. Laughing out loud but barely skipping a beat after she spilled a glass of red wine all over the clothes she was set to perform in, Collins said she accepted the invitation to attend the summit more for personal than professional reasons. 

“I don’t come to make money or to fundraise or to make business connections. For me, coming here is probably the most religious thing I do. I don’t go to synagogue. It’s a way for me to connect to Jews, and I do make people laugh.”

Despite the many light moments, the participants said they had come to the summit to leave their comfort zone. 

“It’s been a safe space to talk about scary ideas,” Prays said. “It’s very intense, but worth it.”

South African confab brings together Jewish innovators

A conference in South Africa brought together young Jewish innovators from across the country.

More than 60 leading innovators from an array of business and social enterprises attended the first South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering in Johannesburg on Feb. 11-12.

Guy Lieberman, who attended a young entrepreneurs gathering last year in Jerusalem known as the ROI Community, arranged the South African gathering in conjunction with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which had sponsored the ROI meeting.

Lieberman told JTA that the aim was “not to form a new organization but rather to act as “a revised set of synapses between individuals and institutions within the Jewish community.”

Lynn Schusterman, the foundation’s chair, said South Africa is a vital hub of the global Jewish community and “we are engaging with young people because they are writing the next chapter of South Africa’s Jewish life.”

“You not only have the challenges of the Jewish world,” she said. “You have the challenges of creating a better world and a better South Africa.”

Keynote speakers included Helen Lieberman, founder of Ikamva Labantu, a local grass-roots organization founded in the apartheid years. Ikamva Labantu has more than 1,000 sustainable development projects in the poorer areas of the country in education, child care and senior centers.

ROI youth magnet for global change

“Jewish Summer.” Young, remarkable and ready to change the world.

“I was 25 and never had spoken to a Pakistani delegation before. Mustafa came over to me and said, ‘Would you mind if I sit down next to you and speak?’ We were struck by the fact we were so-called intellectuals—well read—and yet our attitudes in dealing with people were as though we never opened a book.”

That was two years ago, and today Ilja Sichrovsky, savvy founder and general secretary of the Muslim Jewish Conference, and Mustafa are close friends. In 2010, Ilja’s Vienna-based organization brought more than 65 individuals from 25 countries together to promote the idea that with collective faith, peaceful coexistence is feasible.

Ilja represented the electrifying energy of creative and collaborative thought that flowed through the halls of Hebrew University as 150 young global social entrepreneurs came together to share and learn from each other. They are the ROI – an acronym for “return on investment” – attending the sixth ROI Summit sponsored by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.  Justin Korda, the foundation’s executive director and force behind the initiative, explained to The Media Line that participants, which he described as “a small handful of people building community,” are in their 20s and 30s, and are pooled from other organizations, having been nominated by their peers.

During the five-day conference, participants are brought together to network and engage in ideas, according to Sandy Cardin, president of the Schusterman Foundation and steward of its flagship project. “The focus has changed to strengthening the individual and providing talents and skills, as opposed to earlier years of the projects’ orientation,” he told The Media Line. Indeed, those selected for the Jerusalem conference would reap not only the benefits of exchanging ideas with peers, but receiving hands-on coaching in skills necessary to navigate more mundane organizational needs ranging from fundraising to name branding to improving personal speaking abilities and presentations.

A vibrant force of thinkers representing every aspect of Jewish life ranged from, an on-line hospitality network that assists Jewish travelers find Jewish homes; to Moishe House, where a post-collegiate can share in a Jewish environment in any of 35 hosting homes in 14 countries; to Yiddish Summer Farm, where “all things Yiddish are hip”; to Machshava Tova, which collects discarded computers destined for landfills and uses them to train unemployed youth-at-risk as qualified computer technicians.

Skill sessions, experimental labs and master classes featured a wide range of topics including art and culture; cuisine; media hi-tech; environment; LGBT as issues effecting Jews as citizens of the world.

Beaming with pride, conference founder Lynn Schusterman viewed the plethora of proceedings and told The Media Line that, “We’re almost 600 strong and in some way, shape or form, each and every one is a success story. It may not be dollars and cents; they may not have a name-recognition organization yet; but they feel better about whom they are, they have more self-confidence and they look at the world differently.”

One recurring theme in speaking to participants was finding ways the global Jewish community can contribute to making the world around it a better place. The idea was reflected in the make-up of organizations selected to attend. Cadena, for instance, is a Mexican organization created to organize immediate support through the Jewish community that is distributed to victims of natural disasters. Executive director Karen Steiner told of her group’s work after a flood devastated Veracruz. “The government didn’t help the little towns because only boats could get there,” she told The Media Line. “We assisted through the local fisherman and delivered 150 tons of food and water.” The group also provided assistance to Haiti.

Stephen Shashoua heads the U.K.-based Three Faiths Forum, an organization that has linked 45 British schools bringing Jewish, Christian and Muslim students together. Opining that his generation has “more of an instinct for fairness than our parents’ generation did,” he praised ROI for “creating a space where nothing is off-limits.”

Tzvika Avnery is co-founder of Israel-based Wisestamp, an email app platform that enables your functional dynamic email signature. Tzvika told The Media Line that with two million installers globally, “one has the option of enabling users to follow a good cause.” Avnery felt the ROI Summit gave him an opportunity to meet one of his biggest niches – the non-profits and projects for good causes. “For me to meet them, understand their needs and leverage their supporters is important from the business perspective,” he said.

On the flip side sits Charlene Seidle, who is directly involved in grant-making as the vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego. As a leading philanthropic adviser, Seidle sees the RIO experience in a different light. “As a funder, I’m besieged by requests. There’s little time to reflect on strategy. We are more responsive and this gathering brings the innovators together and equalizes it.”

Colorado-based Sarah Indyk is a manager at the Rose Community Foundation where she is responsible for three Jewish Life Foundation initiatives. “Do you have a logic model? Will people buy into your idea?” she asks her fellow ROIs during her session entitled, “Evaluation without an Evaluator.”

Laptops, iPads, phones and even antiquated notebooks were all sprawled out across desks while parallel sessions were taught by professionals, most of whom were of equal age to that of the participants.

Jumpstart, through its co-founder Shawn Landres, has changed the global conversation about Jewish innovation primarily through research and advocacy. Landres taught at ROI in 2009, and ran a number of workshops. “I’m here as a participant,” he told The Media Line, “and I’m so honored to be joining the community from that perspective.

Landres was first in line to ask questions of Bob Rosenschein following a master class he delivered. An example of the talent available to summit participants, Rosenschein is the entrepreneurial wizard who created – listed among the top 20 sites in the world and recently sold for more than $100 million. He called his session, “Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur.”

“I think it’s brilliant. There is such a diverse group of people here, all talking about action,” said Gadi Rouach, an artist who created the What is Real Creative Energy? video, which will develop into a branding campaign about what Israel and Jewry is today. Another branding expert, Karin Dimant-Rogovsky, who founded Brandtality, returns to the ROI Summit with the distinction of having met her husband at ROI 2007.

Yet, for all of the talk of world-views, reliance upon “Jewish values” is inherent in all of the activities displayed and in the thought process of those assembled to teach and to learn. As well, concern over the place Israel holds in the hierarchy of priorities among the younger generation is rife. Landres, a multi-year veteran of the ROI Summit, suggested that, “there are a lot of young Jews who are becoming social entrepreneurs who are making change in the world and doing so from the basis of their Jewish values…At the end of the day, the burden is on us to show the world that Judaism and Jewish life can bring a positive impact to all of us in the world – to the world around us.” Inwardly, Landres said the other challenge is “to create compelling and meaningful Jewish communities that will engage the 21st Century Jews in ways that connect them to the richness of our tradition.”

With 29 nations represented, none of those assembled in Jerusalem for the ROI Summit was oblivious to being in the region marked by mass unrest and a new set of epithets, including “Arab Spring.”  The Schusterman Foundation’s Korda offered a telling differentiation between the two movements: “Our challenges are different as Jewish people than those living in ‘Tehranical’ countries where human rights are lacking as well as freedom of expression. One of the greatest problems as a result of so much freedom is that in the Jewish world when we talk about revolution we’re talking about transition.” Korda believes that, “These people are not working to overthrow establishment, but working with establishment.”

Jewish communal leaders have been agonizing over the younger generation’s perceived loss of interest in the Jewish state, an issue that is part-and-parcel of the transition Korda spoke about. One reality permeating the ROI Summit was that the new generation does not necessarily reject its parents’ bonding with the modern state, but young Jews do insist on being allowed the ability to process the relevant facts and form independent, informed conclusions. Landres quotes his organization’s research which, he says, demonstrates “a desire on the part of the younger generation to learn; to engage; to see the complexity of Israel from start to finish; to put everything in context and then be treated as adults who are capable of making up their own minds about what their relationship with Israel is going to look like.”

Lynn Schusterman says, “We need a Jewish Spring. And I don’t mean a revolution like what went on in Egypt. But what I think Israel has to do and what I think world Jewry has to do is to be inclusive, not exclusive. And I think they have to welcome anyone who wants to be Jewish to expose them to what being Jewish is; to Jewish education.”

Listening to Schusterman, that the real strategy behind the ROI Summit is a vision that suggests if the attitude is achieved, the individual pieces will fall into place is evidenced by her passionate telling of two stories. The first, her unbridled joy at receiving an email from an ROI alum asking for assistance “for a buddy, not for himself.” The second, the story of a now-successful doctor who attended medical school with a loan from Shusterman’s father. Rather than accept the proffered repayment of the loan, he told the doctor to use the money to “send someone else to medical school.”

From the chemistry apparent at the ROI Summit, it seems likely that Cardin’s prediction of ten years hence is not far-fetched: “a network of some 1700-1800 young activists around the world who understand they’re part of something larger and they’re connected in a way they are really a global force in Jewish life.”