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Thursday, October 22, 2020

UpStart Aims to Transform Jewish Organizational Life From Within

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

Los Angeles is home to a variety of Jewish community institutions, entrepreneurial efforts and innovative programs, but they don’t always intersect smoothly. However, UpStart’s new Change Accelerator program, which previously ran in Chicago and New York, has selected a Los Angeles cohort of seven “intrapreneurs” and is training them to make change from within. 

“Entrepreneurial spirit is how this city functions,” said Danielle Natelson, design strategist for UpStart, which provides Jewish trailblazers with targeted support to encourage their ideas through implementation and beyond. The cohort is “not just influential within the walls of their institutions — they have reach outside those institutions,” she said. 

She added, “This is an investment in the broader Jewish community, and the ripple effect that they get to have has potential to be really profound. The cohort we were able to attract are folks who are able to be game-changers.”

The Accelerator provides workshops and seminars based on principles of design thinking and adaptive leadership methodology. The organizations nominate the Accelerator candidates and promise that after six months of training, intrapreneurs will have the opportunity to implement what they’ve learned. Candidates need to have been in their current roles for at least a year and working in the Jewish communal landscape for three. 

Cohort member Edana Appel, Westside JCC’s director of camp and family programs, said she was “excited about the chance to expand my skillset and build a network of like-minded individuals in Los Angeles.”

Having heard of UpStart’s impact in other communities, she “jumped at the opportunity to have an even greater impact on my JCC and my community.”

Appel calls the cohort “diverse in its skills but similar in each individual’s passion for their work and for learning.” She said she has gained a considerable amount of value
in learning new methodologies and having the opportunity to expand her skills in program planning.

“We need people in institutions as much as we need entrepreneurs, and we need them to work together because that’s really where the magic happens.” 

— Aaron Katler

For Rabbi Scott Westle, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School in Northridge, the Accelerator has provided meaningful networking with colleagues across the Jewish world. 

“We share big ideas and in-the-weeds details,” Westle said. “I have enjoyed the opportunities to share with like-minded peers the challenges and opportunities of creating change in legacy Jewish institutions. My hope is that the professional skills and professional network will be a resource to create the change I wish to see … to reconceptualize Heschel as a Jewish center for all our families with even more robust offerings.”

Photo by Mika Larson Photography

Participants also have access to UpStart’s community of peers and coaches, who can provide advice and support.

“We know it can feel isolating and lonely trying to make change within an organization, lacking a community of practice,” Natelson said. “The cohort-experience components are designed to facilitate and nurture relationships to build a community of practice in Los Angeles.”

The other members of the Change Accelerator cohort are Jill Hoyt from the Avi Schaefer Fund; Tamah Kushner of Congregation Tikvat Jacob Beth Torah; Rabbi Matt Shapiro of Temple Beth Am; Aya Shechter of the Israeli American Council; and Adam Siegel of Beit T’shuvah.

“This program recognizes that the way you make change is by supporting the bold leaders who are making that change,” said Jocelyn Orloff, UpStart’s Southern California director. “The idea is that they are plugged in to the work we are doing and our network, local and national.” 

One of the methods that is core to UpStart’s training programs is design thinking and human-centered design, which asks program creators to think about a program’s intended users or audience and to develop the idea with those users in mind. 

“I hope I can take the concepts and modalities I am learning in the program and make them part of my professional tool kit,” Appel said. “In any Jewish organization, we are trying to serve people, so the ideas behind human-centered design should be a regular way we build and rebuild programming.”

UpStart emerged in the Bay Area in 2008 to support West Coast leaders. By 2015, there was increasing demand in the market to grow and scale to different cities, said UpStart CEO Aaron Katler. To meet this demand, UpStart merged with three fellow organizations, Bikkurim, Joshua Venture Group and PresenTense, in 2017. 

Now UpStart has a network of local communities in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago, Colorado and New York. In L.A., the organization hosts workshops, provides peer support and manages the accelerators. It also co-programs the annual Collaboratory, a gathering of Jewish community visionaries in North America, including innovators, institutions and funders. 

Katler said UpStart’s funders “see how important and messy the work is,” calling the partnership with funders “really important.” Nationally, UpStart has three foundations supporting its work — Schusterman, Jim Joseph and Marcus — that are “involved in thinking about the process but in a perspective of learning, not directing,” Katler said.

UpStart’s Los Angeles presence is funded by a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and by the Diane & Guilford Glazer Fund.

Katler said he hopes the Accelerator “drives real change. Our bias isn’t ‘when those institutions go away, Jewish life will be more vibrant’ — that’s not our approach,” he said. “We need people in institutions as much as we need entrepreneurs, and we need them to work together because that’s really where the magic happens. We need to train and support as many people as we can to create and renew Jewish experiences.”

For Katler, it’s all about helping to support a movement of changemakers in Jewish life. “We’re not a school or think tank,” he said. “As long as institutions of Jewish life are here, we’re going to do whatever we can to help them reach their potential.”

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