‘I help people plug in USB cables,” quips Seth Cohen as he begins to describe his new role as the recently appointed director of network development for The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
The title, he says, “is much more cryptic than some of the thinking.”
“We recognize that as the nature of Jewish life continues to change, more and more of the way people are identifying themselves and expressing themselves is not just through affiliating with organizations but with networks,” Cohen says. “They are tapping into formal networks, like ROI [Community] and the National Young Leadership Cabinet of the [Jewish Federations of North America], or through organizations like Moishe House, networks of folks that are created independently.”
The Schusterman Foundation has been a leading proponent of the power of networking as a tool to encourage innovation among young Jews. Since 2006, the foundation has funded the ROI Global Summit, a conference held each summer that brings together more than 100 young, innovative, and creative Jewish leaders from around the globe for skill-building, professional development and, of course, networking. To encourage collaboration among members of the ROI community, the Schusterman Foundation has doled out more than half a million dollars in grants, with preference given to projects like Jewcology.com and Jewish Salons, which are launched by a group of ROIers, rather than an individual.
Taking a cue from the “Jewish Innovation Economy” report published by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which found that many of the networks in Jewish life are isolated from one another, the Schusterman Foundation is among the first Jewish philanthropic organizations to publicly invest in efforts to link its communities with other prominent networks of young Jews.
“We have a unique set of relationships through ROI and programs like the REALITY Israel Experience for Teach For America Corps Members and Kivun [a five-month professional development program], and unique visibility,” Cohen says. “We have the responsibility and a role to play in helping to weave together networks in stronger and more intentional ways.”
Cohen brings with him crucial ties — both as an active lay leader within the Jewish community and as an attorney in private practice in Atlanta. He is a board member of The Joshua Venture Group, which provides a select group of Jewish social entrepreneurs with more than $100,000 in funding and support to help them create innovative and sustainable organizations that will benefit the Jewish community.
Transitioning from lay leader to Jewish communal professional wasn’t something he initially envisioned. “I had a very fulfilling law career,” says Cohen, who was a partner at international law firm Holland & Knight LLP. But the more he spent time with what he dubs “Team Schusterman,” the more the idea excited him. “You don’t need to wait until your encore career to enter the world of Jewish communal work,” he says.
A regular commentator on issues of social change and innovation in Jewish life for eJewishPhilanthropy, Cohen is no stranger to “established” networks within the Jewish community. The 37-year-old is a member of JFNA’s Young Leadership Cabinet and is also a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. He’s served in volunteer leadership roles at AIPAC, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Israel Chamber of Commerce. He’s also an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage program.
“There are amazing networks out there that are not specifically Schusterman networks,” he says. “JFNA has some very smart professionals who are developing a strategy to further network young Jewish adults. Where possible, we will partner with those organizations.” The goal? “To achieve a more networked Jewish community.”
The first task on the job will be to take an inventory of all the connected efforts within Jewish life that “work.” Then, Cohen will work with the foundation to brainstorm ways to weave them together. The idea is to help young Jews understand and tap into the resources that are available to them to create more Jewish experiences for themselves and for their peers.
“There are an amazing number of young adults doing an amazing number of things, but often the way they find other fellow travelers is serendipitous,” he says. “They meet someone who says, ‘You should talk to so and so.’”
The foundation “wants to help take the serendipitous network development created in the Jewish world and make it more intentional,” he says.
The question of how best to knit groups of people connected through various relationships is one that is a growing field of study within the nonprofit community, on a whole. Allison Fine and Beth Kanter’s best-selling 2010 book, “The Networked Nonprofit,” explores the intersection of social media and social change.
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation have each commissioned numerous studies focused on how best to tap into networks of people to create informed, engaged communities.
“We hope that the Schusterman Foundation becomes recognized as a place where the heart of Jewish peoplehood meets the science of network theory,” Cohen says.
“Lynn Schusterman has a vision that young Jews will endure for a very long time; it’s part of our theory of change,” he says. “We need to invest in deepening and strengthening those networks for the Jewish people to endure.”
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub Wins $100,000 Social Justice Prize
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, the co-founder and co-executive director of Encounter, has been awarded the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The award comes with a $100,000 prize, half of which will be earmarked toward sustaining and growing Encounter’s programs in Israel and North America. The remaining $50,000 will support Rabbi Weintraub during the next year as she writes a book and provides workshops, trainings, and presentations at synagogues, universities and Jewish communal institutions.
Encounter (www.encounterprograms.org) aims to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through face-to-face understanding. The group has brought more than 1,000 Jewish leaders on trips to Palestinian cities in the West Bank to listen to Palestinian narratives and witness the realities on the ground. The goal of these trips is to foster a more constructive engagement with Israel by helping leaders gain a more nuanced understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It was an exhilarating surprise,” Rabbi Weintraub, a 2008 “36 Under 36” designee, told The Jewish Week. “We hope that Grinnell’s award will spotlight Encounter’s accomplishments, vision and values. We see greater visibility as a key to the broader transformation we hope to help create, building more informed, inclusive American-Jewish Israel engagement.”
References from prominent leaders, such as American Jewish World Service’s Ruth Messinger and Peter Weiss, an attorney who serves on the executive committee of Americans for Peace Now, played a role. Messinger also nominated one of the other winners, James Kofi Annan, who founded Challenging Heights, a nonprofit that provides education and rehabilitation for children who have survived slavery and horrific forms of child labor. Messinger “is such a supportive, veteran social justice leader championing the leadership of young innovators for change,” Rabbi Weintraub said.
Grinnell College also honored Boris Bulayev and Eric Glustrom, the president and the executive director of Educate!, an organization that empowers Ugandan youth.
More than 1,000 nominations were received from 66 countries for the award, which was designed to honor individuals under 40 who are working to foster positive social change.
“Rabbi Weintraub’s simple yet innovative approach focuses on creating dialogue and emphasizing civility and discourse to tackle controversial issues,” says Dr. Raynard S. Kington, who was recently inaugurated as president of Grinnell College. “Her ability to foster greater understanding regarding one of the most complex, divisive areas in the world is bold and transformative, and she has created a model that can be emulated to address other global issues.”
Israeli Principal Wins 2011 Charles Bronfman Prize
Karen Tal, principal of the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, Israel, was awarded The 2011 Charles Bronfman Prize for her work in transforming a failing school with an economically challenged and socially diverse student population into a successful educational model.
“I can think of no one who better exemplifies the most fundamental of Jewish values,” said Nahum Barnea, Yediot Ahronot chief columnist and recipient the State of Israel Prize, who nominated Tal. “Karen has embraced the weak native Israelis, as well as outsiders and strangers, and welcomed them into a framework which accepts, recognizes and loves. Karen is an inspiration for those who believe that being Jewish and Israeli implies social action that contributes to repairing a damaged world.”
Tal’s school was the subject of the documentary film “Strangers No More,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for short-subject documentary.
The Charles Bronfman Prize is an annual $100,000 award for a young humanitarian whose work is informed and fueled by Jewish values and has broad, global impact that can potentially change lives. Previous recipients include Jay Feinberg, founder and executive director of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, co-founders of the Knowledge is Power Program charter schools.