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Graduates Forge Their Own Path

June 12, 2014 By:
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Summer approaches with a heightened sense of change and destiny for recent graduates.
 
While most of the rest of the world goes about business as usual, these students prepare to head off to college, graduate programs or new  jobs. 
 
In honor of the season, we caught up with four local graduates: a 19-year-old budding entrepreneur, a Navy officer hopeful and two rabbinical school graduates who may just change your mind about what it means to be a rabbi.
 

Jon Kolman, 19,
Elkins Park

Graduated: Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy

Next Up: Working full-time on his startup companies

 

Bucking the Trend

Kolman made his first splash in the business world at age 16 when he created an app that made it possible for older versions of the iPhone to use Siri, an interactive voice system that’s featured on the iPhone 4S and subsequent models.
 

After posting the app for $10 a download on an online store called Fibia, he said, he went on to make a profit of about $80,000 in one summer.

“It got really popular,” Kolman said with casual nonchalance as he explained how his entrepreneurial ventures led to his decision to forgo college.

From that first app, Kolman began developing a concept for a startup company that would provide a platform for travelers to meet up with like-minded individuals when they visit new destinations. His blog posts about the idea caught the attention of Martin Roed, now 24, who studies computer science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway.
 
Roed reached out to the budding software developer and even flew to Philadelphia to attend a tech event with him last July. There, they met two recent Drexel University graduates, and decided to join forces to flesh out their service for traveling entrepreneurs,which they named GlideWithUs.

Though GlideWithUs is still in a testing phase, Kolman’s second start-up, FlockWithMe, has already taken off.
 
FlockWithMe is a web-based social media networking program that helps companies market themselves through Twitter. Using an algorithm that Kolman and his team developed, FlockWithMe analyzes Twitter users’ hashtags, keywords and location to identify those who might be interested in their clients’ products or services. After finding those users, the program automatically marks some of their tweets as “favorites” in hopes of engaging them with the business.

“We’re basically trying to automate marketing in general so companies can focus on their products and spend their time on something that’s actually important and not waste their time on generating new leads,” Kolman explained.

Based on their specific needs, Kolman said, companies pay anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a month to use FlockWithUs. After launching in March, Kolman said, FlockWithUs attracted interest from hundreds of users, but the company narrowed its clientele to focus on 15 startups and more established corporations.

Since Kolman has devoted so much time to these fledgling businesses, he said, it seemed natural to break from tradition and pursue them full-time after high school.

“I really like building stuff that people use,” Kolman explained. “I think Glide has the potential to connect people who would never have been able to meet.”

Kolman said that while his family and friends weren’t always supportive of his decision not to go to college, they have slowly come around as he continued to garner success.
 
“He’s always shown me that he is serious about what he’s doing and he’s surprised us quite a number of times,” said his dad, Timothy Kolman. “It is unusual but I’ll tell you something about Jonathan — with or without our blessing he would go forward with this, he is that motivated.”

Kolman said he has no regrets about choosing to dive into his business career.

“I’m learning through doing, which I think is the best way to learn,” Kolman said. “Instead of going to college and learning how to write a business plan, I’m running an actual company and learning what investors care about — how to build a sustainable business around my vision, which you can only learn through experience.”

   

Hannah Feldman, 21, Philadelphia

Graduated: University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies

Next Up: Volunteer and study abroad programs

 

Patriotic Pursuits

Hannah Feldman has a three-year plan that she hopes will culminate in joining the U.S. Navy. Along the way, she’s aiming to organize stops in an AmeriCorps program and a religious studies seminary in Israel.

“I value structure,” Feldman said, noting that this is a large part of why she’s attracted to the Navy.

Though she intends the Navy to be her final destination, Feldman  first wants to apply to AmeriCorps, with the goal of volunteering for something like Habitat for Humanity. That experience, she said, will allow her to travel to new places outside of Philadelphia, where she has lived for almost her entire life, while still being surrounded by a structured environment.

After hitting on the idea of AmeriCorps, Feldman decided to add a year in Israel to her itinerary.

“I didn’t grow up in a Zionist family and Israel was never super-important to me in terms of my Judaism,” Feldman said, so this will provide an opportunity to explore her spirituality and beliefs.

Feldman said her parents have generally approved of her three-part plan — though her mother worries that she’ll end up wanting to stay in Israel.

“Yeah, go, but please come back,” her mom, Ellen Chapman, said. “I have concerns, but not in her ability to make decisions and figure out who she is and what she wants to do.”

The Navy hopeful already experienced a period of independence and challenge during college when she traveled abroad to Kyrgyzstan, a small, predominantly Islamic country in Central Asia.

“It was similar to any study abroad experience — you learn some things, travel,” Feldman said.

While in Kyrgyzstan, Feldman connected with the local Chabad center, which she credits for motivating her to become more active with Jewish life when she returned to the University of Pennsylvania campus.

As for her desire to join the Navy, Feldman said, she surprised herself as much as anyone.

“Honestly, I don’t even remember what flipped that switch, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense for me,” Feldman said, adding that the Navy will also be a chance to foster her burgeoning sense of patriotism.

“I believe that there are civic responsibilities that we all have as citizens,” Feldman said. “I don’t believe that joining the armed forces is a requirement, but it’s something that I think is meaningful and will be good for me.”
 

Tamara Cohen, 42, Mount Airy

Graduated: Reconstructionist
Rabbinical College

Next Up: Director of Innovations at Moving Traditions

Off to Innovate

Tamara Cohen, a 2014 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate, is on a mission to effect change in the Jewish world.

Cohen will vault herself into the thick of the action when she becomes director of innovations at Moving Traditions, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit that promotes a more expansive view of gender through educational programs for Jewish teens.

The issue of gender roles in sexuality, which Cohen will tackle from a Jewish perspective as part of her new job, recently jumped into the national spotlight when a young man named Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in California, killing seven people including himself and leaving behind a lengthy manifesto explaining that his attack was motivated by sexual frustrations.

Incidents like that are unfortunate examples that “the work that I’m going to be blessed with doing — of working on gender issues and helping people navigate the spiritual challenges and the life challenges of adolescence and young adulthood” — is so important, Cohen said.

“It’s clear that there’s a lot of work to do about educating people to think differently about women, about sexuality, about how to handle loneliness and anger — and I think that spiritual leaders and rabbis absolutely have a job in that.”

She cites her own past feelings of exclusion as a driving force behind her decision to become a rabbi.

When Cohen, who grew up within the Conservative movement, felt her first calling to become a spiritual leader, it coincided with her decision to come out as a lesbian — and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s decision not to ordain openly gay and lesbian candidates.

Unable to become a Conservative rabbi, Cohen served for 10 years as the spiritual  leader of the Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, an unaffiliated synagogue in Washington, Conn., where being ordained was not a prerequisite for the job.

“For a long time, I think that experience of exclusion held me back,” Cohen said. “I didn’t take the step of going to rabbinical school until more recently, so it has felt very healing in a certain way to now fully step into the title of rabbi.”

Her partner, Gwynn Kessler, an associate professor of religion at Swarthmore College, and their 8-year-old son, Tobias Kessler-Cohen, joined in celebrating her ordination on June 2.

Mainstream Judaism has now become more accepting of non-traditional gender roles and sexual identities — JTS reversed its policy in 2006 to accept openly gay students, as have nearly all other non-Orthodox religious institutions — and Cohen is anxious to get out in the field.

“I think that good rabbis are rabbis that are always looking for ways to keep learning as well as continue teaching,” she said. “But I’m also excited that the portion of time that I’m spending out there doing the work and in the classroom is now going to shift.”

Nick Renner, 28,
Philadelphia

Graduated: Reconstructionist
Rabbinical College

Next Up: Assistant rabbi at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

Rockin’ Rabbi

When Nick Renner heads out West to become the assistant rabbi for Kehillat Israel, he will bring a special skill beyond the spiritual guidance he learned to impart at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing.

Renner, who originally hails from Chapel Hill, N.C., and is married to native Philadelphian Kimmy Renner of Bucks County, said his chops as a guitarist is one of the reasons the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world decided to bring him on board.

“They gave me an electric guitar to play back up” for an impromptu jam session “and they loved it,” Renner said of the interview process. “They said, ‘We would love for you to be playing music regularly in and around the community as part of what you do out here.’ ”

The recent RRC graduate’s love for music blossomed as a 14-year-old when his father, a classically trained musician who has played in marching bands and orchestras along with his mother, bought him a bass guitar “on a whim.” The bass succeeded where his parents’ previous attempts to convince Renner to learn the piano or violin had failed.

“I just sort of took to it, I loved it,” Renner recalled.

In high school, Renner switched from bass to guitar. During his college years, he became a regular guitarist for Duke University’s jazz program.

When RRC asked Renner to attend a yearlong Hebrew ulpan program in Israel as a prerequisite to joining the rabbinical program, Renner quickly became involved in the Israeli music scene with a Netanya-based rock group called Kapriza, the Hebrew word for capriciousness.

“I was playing southern rock and blues licks at this place and one of the guys behind the desk was like, ‘You should be in my band,’ ” Renner said of his introduction to the group.

The band, fronted by a Yemenite Jew with an Elvis obsession, according to Renner’s description, played shows all around central Israel. When Renner returned to Israel a few years later as part of his rabbinical studies, he hooked up with his old Kapriza buddies to play various gigs around Jerusalem, including a stint as the guitarist for a karaoke bar that also served hummus.

Now that he has completed rabbinical school, Renner said he’s looking forward to combining his two passions on a communal stage at Kehillat Israel.

“I can fit into their musical groups and I can be doing the sermons and helping to officiate whatever is going on and such, and if there’s some songs, I can put on the guitar and be playing along,” Renner said. “I find it to be an incredibly powerful spiritual practice and it definitely feeds my rabbinate in a way in which I relate and connect to people and sort of what I bring from a Jewish place.”

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