by Kira Blumer
– ROI Community is an international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens. An initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, it is a global organization that seeks to ignite the passion and unleash the power in young people to create positive change in the Jewish community and across the broader world.
From June 7 – 11, I had the privilege of attending the 2015 ROI Summit in Jerusalem. The Summit, ROI’s flagship program, is the gateway into the ROI Community. It gathers 150 of the Jewish world’s brightest young minds from every corner of the globe and every field of endeavour, to dream big, network intensely, and learn a great deal from a cohort of talented peers.
I learned a great deal at the ROI Summit about the pursuit of greatness in the Jewish community.
I cannot imagine another context in which entrepreneurs, activists, scientists, comedians, app developers, and Jewish community professionals could find such value in one another’s company. While joining ROI often involves attending a five-day summit in Jerusalem, ROI is not an event; it is a community. It’s a Jewish community, but not in the typical sense. The ROI network is comprised of 955 Jews from 57 countries. We speak 43 languages and span countless fields, united by a shared commitment to the Jewish people.
An experience like this is easy to get behind. Who would object to being wined and dined, hearing from influential guest speakers, and joining an international network of talented people? But for me, the summit had much broader implications for the Jewish community. It exposed me to an impressive group of Jewish professionals who are reimaging Jewish life. I was especially taken by their approaches to programming, community building, and investment in people, all of which are driven by the pursuit of greatness. As the first Calgarian to join this network, I wondered how this initiative had eluded our community for a decade.
The summit was largely peer led, with priorities and topics determined by the participants. Instead of exclusively entertaining the usual questions about BDS, the Pew Report, and assimilation, we worked together to find solutions to lesser-known problems in the community. Our peers presented case studies, and experts requested our help with issues on their minds. For instance, how does an Orthodox LGBTQ youth advocate navigate the non-denominational funding structures of JCCs and Federations while struggling to find Orthodox donors? Or, how do we attract top talent to work in the Jewish sector?
In other cases, we helped our peers with secular topics. We talked about fundraising, working with lay leadership, strategic partnerships, branding and marketing, and effective resume writing. In many ways, this felt just as “Jewish.” The summit modeled a new and important approach to programming for young Jews: variety and choice.
Programming aside, this week challenged my perspective on traditional Jewish community structures. I have worked with small communities in Western Canada for many years and thought I had a good sense of our capacity for growth and change. I have managed small budgets and big needs, grappled with affiliation rates among our youth, and found great partners among similarly sized communities. Despite our small population, we have shown incredible resilience and strength. But we are, in many ways, isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.
On a national level, we struggle to find an effective approach to idea sharing, professional development, and partnerships. Small communities, we argue, must stick together because bigger communities will never understand our needs and our unique challenges. In many cases, this is absolutely true. And yet, Jewish organizations like BBYO, Hillel, Moishe House, and the Schusterman Foundation have found incredible value in collaborating on a global level. Despite the breadth and size of these organizations, they remain focused on individual people. Promising leaders earn access to mentorship programs, prestigious internships, and key networks. International scale meets small community feel.
These organizations also emphasize the importance of continuous innovation. They invest in great people and big ideas, while constantly reassessing their approach to Jewish programming and community engagement. The end result is a team of highly skilled, ambitious, and happy Jewish community volunteers and professionals that return the investment back into their local communities.
So how do we bring these ideas home?
We can empower young Jews to take ownership over the future of their communities, change the conversations, and make room for diversity. Most importantly, we need to tap into existing opportunities and resources. We can start by connecting our youth, lay leaders, and professionals to international experiences. Small communities produce some of the strongest, most capable leaders of the Jewish world. Too often we also remain among the best-kept secrets. For everyone’s sake, this needs to change.
Last week, Lynn Schusterman implored from the podium, “ask me what that change looks like, and I’ll turn that question back to you. Because it’s not what I want, it’s what you want. You have the answers and the keys to making Jewish life more relevant, exciting and accessible … so dream big, take risks, and make it happen.”
My post-ROI vision is a tall order, but it’s also quite simple. I want cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Regina to take their rightful place among the global Jewish community. I want to see empowered youth return from international experiences keen to work and volunteer locally in the Jewish sector. Most of all, I want our Jewish community to continue to be a place for great people, big ideas, and rapid change. After all, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it” (Avot 2:21).
Kira Blumer is a native Calgarian and the outgoing Senior Regional Director of Northwest Canada BBYO. She founded the Western Conference, an annual meeting of Jewish students from Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg providing a platform to explore and deepen connections to Israel and Judaism and teach professional development.