For years, Laurel Klein has been dreaming of opening a combination restaurant, bar and performance space where Jewish young adults could gather to eat, socialize, learn and then "take their Jewishness back home with them."
Now, the 31-year-old Philadelphia transplant has a litmus test of whether others want that, too. Klein's proposed "Cafe Olam" is among a handful of startups seeking support on Jewcer.com, a new Jewish crowd-funding platform.
Modeled after the secular Kickstarter, Jewcer serves as a venue for anyone, anywhere, to pledge financial support to innovative projects related to Judaism or Israel.
"It's kind of a test bed for ideas," explained Naomi Leight, 28, who founded the site along with four friends in Los Angeles. "Our generation doesn't just want to donate money where it goes to a pile and you don't know what it goes toward. They want to give to projects they are passionate about and they want to give directly."
There have been at least two other Jewish attempts at crowdfunding, though neither appears to be active. Mitzfunder.org came out of PresenTense, a nonprofit that runs business-training fellowships and seminars in several major cities, but no projects are currently listed. A private company in Tel Aviv launched Jcrowd.com last August, according to a blog post. However, the site is blocked without a password.
While Jcrowd was aimed at attracting more observant or Israeli populations, Leight said, Jewcer targets 25- to 45-year-olds in cosmopolitan U.S. cities.
Like Kickstarter, the site is set up so that donors get something in exchange for their level of support, whether a shout-out on the venture's Facebook page, a personal thank-you card, merchandise, advertising, tickets to an event and so forth. But they only get these "rewards" if the project reaches its stated goal within a maximum of 75 days. If the funding falls short, nobody's credit cards are charged, and the project organizer isn't obligated to move forward without a sufficient budget. Ideally, this all-or-nothing model encourages those who care about a project to convince others to feel the same way so that it succeeds, Leight said.
"It's not, 'I'm asking you for money;' it's 'I want your participation,' " Leight explained.
Leight and her co-founders pooled their own money to develop the site, which officially launched in late March. Since then, they've posted 14 projects seeking anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000. Aside from Klein and another Philadelphian, Adam Oded, who's pitching a podcast of Israeli music, the rest of the initiatives are rooted in Los Angeles.
So far, the site has drawn more than 10,000 unique visitors and 500 pledges totaling $22,000. An Israel Ambassador Program for teens just obtained its goal and two other projects are more than halfway. But time is running out. Most of the projects expire by June 1. Leight said she expected a slow start because many people still don't understand the concept, but she's confident that at least a handful of the projects will make it. Jewcer also relies on the projects succeeding because the site is set up to sustain itself by taking 5 percent of the money raised.
"If the funding doesn't come together, then it's a sign that I need to retool the project and set it out again," said Oded, a 44-year-old DJ and newly appointed communications staffer at Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit that promotes Jewish identity.
Oded is seeking $2,000 on Jewcer, which he estimated would be enough to produce four "Round Trip Radio" podcasts along with an accompanying website featuring links to Israeli artists' sites, free downloads and more.
Oded has previously teamed with PhillyIsrael to host talk shows with various Israeli DJs and performers. With this funding, he said, he'd be able to build that concept into a more professional online magazine.
"This is a labor of love for me," he explained. "No one's going to get rich by promoting Israeli alternative music, but I think it's great music and I want to share that."
As of earlier this week, Klein had more than $4,700 pledged toward Cafe Olam — almost 60 percent of her $8,000 goal. The funds would be designated for legal costs, web development, architecture renderings, branding, strategic planning and a kick-off "BrewHaHa" event on Oct. 13.
Ideally, Klein said, the BrewHaHa will be the first official event in a yet-to-be secured Cafe Olam space, but she's not making promises considering how long it's taken her to get this far.
She began researching the viability of a Jewish brewpub as part of class project for her master's degree in social work at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, she said, she felt like she was too old for Hillel and was starting to lose her Jewish community. There were plenty of young adult programs at bars, she said, "but they were all missing the depth — and I really missed that."
She envisions a permanent but flexible place that would be open "to anyone who walks in the door," including interfaith couples looking "to grow Jewishly together." A percentage of revenue from the for-profit bar would go toward an affiliated nonprofit devoted to hosting Jewish programs, which could range from concerts to workshops examining beer in Jewish text.
Armed with data from focus groups and surveys, Klein continued shaping her concept as she went on to study Jewish communal service at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and then moved to Philadelphia when her husband, Eli Freedman, became an assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street.
Last year, she brought her idea to the inaugural class of Tribe 12's social entrepreneur fellowship for innovative programs benefiting the Jewish community and began hosting Cafe Olam events at her home, a rented space or in conjunction with other groups.
After months of searching, Klein said, she's close to signing a lease on a former Jewish vaudeville house in Northern Liberties, provided that a team of lawyers can secure a zoning variance and liquor license. Paying for the building itself will require a separate capital campaign, Klein said, and likely several major donors.
That could be a hard sell because "the people who can afford this idea are an older generation and have a different view of how Jewish communal spaces can look."
For that same reason, she said, micro-grant funding becomes even more important because it can show that people are really invested in something even if they don't have much cash to give.
"If I have 300 donors at $10 or $15 dollars, it speaks to the viability of this project because more people have invested and bought in," Klein explained.
Once the community recognizes crowdfunding "as perhaps the new model for young adults, we'll have no problem with funding, with engaging this demographic," Klein said, "and I have no fear that we'll be able to survive — and replicate."