November 21, 2018

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.