Monday, October 20, 2014 Tishri 26, 5775

New Tribe 12 Fellows: Jewish Ventures Without Jewish Causes?

January 15, 2014 By:
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(From left) Carly Zimmerman, Steven Auerbach and Heather Schmerman write down ideas for developing their ventures at a Tribe 12 Fellowship orientation.

Morgan Berman wants to create an app that would connect users with sustainable businesses, farmers’ markets and alternative fueling stations. 

Elana Baurer wants to help juveniles incarcerated in Montgomery County get back into school when they are released.

What do they have in common?

They are both participants in the Tribe 12 Fellowship, a social entrepreneurial program designed to help young Jewish professionals build socially conscious start-ups.

The other quality Berman and Baurer have in common — in the biggest change from the three previous classes of fellows — is that their ventures have no explicit Jewish connection.

First launched in 2011 to stimulate innovation in the Jewish community, the program has shifted because of concern that the fellowship could soon reach a saturation point of original ideas for Jewish businesses or nonprofits with a reasonable chance of succeeding in Philadelphia, said Ross Berkowitz, executive director of Tribe 12, the nonprofit umbrella organization that oversees the social entrepreneurship program and other organizations, such as The Collaborative.

“You have to think ahead,” Berkowitz said of the five-month program during which fellows attend seminars, workshops and networking events and are paired with coaches. “We’re trying to be proactive. It’s a big mistake of a nonprofit or any organization to wait until you see failure to make a change.”

Although the degree of connection to a Jewish cause or target audience has varied significantly among Tribe 12’s past fellowships, that had been a pivotal requirement of the program, which this year received $45,000 from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and $50,000 from the family of the late Phil Lindy. 

A similar fellowship program in New York, Presentense NYC, also started accepting ventures without a Jewish element this year, according to Naomi Korb Weiss, the CEO of Presentense, an organization that works with 18 such fellowships worldwide, including Philadelphia.

Of the 34 ventures started in Philadelphia since 2011, the organization reports that 22 are still active, including Jews in All Hues, a support group that does outreach to Jews of different ethnic backgrounds, and Schmear It, a bagel food truck that donates a percentage of its profit each week to a local nonprofit. 

Despite the apparent success of the program, Berkowitz said he didn’t want to turn away ideas that may not have the word “Jewish” in their mission statement but still aspire to do social justice, or  tikkun olam.  

The new qualifications for admission opened Tribe 12 to many more entrepreneurs who previously would not have applied, said Lori Turner, an entrepreneur who helped in the fellowship interview process. 

“I thought it was a very good idea because, being a Jewish entrepreneur myself, I always thought even if I wanted to apply for the fellowship, well, I can’t, because I don’t have a Jewish business,”  said Turner, who started Music Monkey Jungle, a company that produces children’s educational music and classes.

Baurer, an attorney who specializes in immigration and employment law, said she and a colleague, who is not a fellow, got the idea to start the nonprofit Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth from a report they produced at Georgetown Law School examining how children struggle to return to school after being suspended, expelled or incarcerated. 

“Sometimes it’s obstacles like, the parents are not native English-speakers and they don’t really understand how to navigate the process,” said Baurer, 26, who taught Hebrew school to sixth- and seventh-graders as an undergrad at Wesleyan University. “Sometimes it’s more insidious factors, like the school they’re supposed to go to is actually in a place that might be dangerous for them to get to for racial or turf” reasons.

Although her program and some of the other ventures no longer specifically target a Jewish population, Berkowitz said the training curriculum continues to weave Jewish ideas into its business lessons.

“The incubator has a Jewish overall tone to it, and for the fellows, more Jewish elements can easily seep into their ideas,” said Berkowitz. “They’re always going to be thinking about how their venture can serve the Jewish population.”

Berman’s proposed app, MilkCrate, could benefit Jews and non-Jews alike.

A graduate student studying sustainable design at Philadelphia University, Berman said she felt there wasn’t a good resource, particularly in digital format, for people who “want to live sustainably and live locally.” She had worked for a local magazine focused on sustainability, producing directories of restaurants with food from local farms, or bike repair shops. But often when the monthly issue went to print, she said, “it was already obsolete,” because there was such high turnover among the businesses.

She said she was inspired by her mother, Nancy Berman, who created A Thrift Shop Maniac’s Guide to the Delaware Valley and the Universe and has been described as the “Siskel and Ebert of area thrift shops,” by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Growing up, Berman said, her family was “religiously ambiguous,” but she sees her venture as infused with Jewish values. 

“I think some of the values behind the venture of protecting the earth, caring about the environment, are values I see reflected in Jewish community activism elsewhere,” said Ber­man, 28, who lives in Fairmount and hopes to launch the app next fall. 

With the change in the evaluation process, only three of the 11 fellows this year have a distinctly Jewish mission. One, for example, aims to create an alumni network for Challah for Hunger, an organization that donates profits from selling the homemade Shabbat staple to the American Jewish World Service and local causes. 

Other ventures might not be exclusively targeted at the Jewish community but could still benefit it. Such examples include: I’m Sorry to Hear, an online guide dedicated to funeral planning, and Soom Foods, a company specializing in tehina, a dip made of ground sesame seeds commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine.

Amy Zitelman and her two sisters started Soom Foods last year after tasting a version of the spread that used Ethiopian sesame seeds during a trip to Israel. 

“It tasted different,” said Zitelman, 24, but “we liked it better. There was nothing like it in the States.”

While they’ve already been selling the product through their website, Zitelman said she’s hoping the fellowship will help her develop a plan for marketing the product to parents and children.

“It’s peanut-free. It’s gluten-free. It’s kosher. It’s vegan. So anyone with allergies or some of these red flags on eating, we hope they are going to realize that it’s a great, fun ingredient,” Zitelman said.

Another fellow, Steven Auerbach, also straddles the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds with his business. Auerbach started his own commercial litigation practice in October, but he also handles cases involving Jewish law. For example, he represents cli­ents when they go before the rabbinic court or seek a get from their spouse. He said he is hoping to use the fellowship program to learn more about advertising and managing the financial side of his law practice, as well as getting to know the other fellows — whom he termed “future movers and shakers.”

The fellowship “really is beautiful. Most of my friends, just by where I live, are Orthodox,” said the 27-year-old observant Jew who lives in Bala Cynwyd. “And this is just an awesome opportunity for me to hang out with people who have a similar heritage but approach their Yiddishkeit and their Judaism differently.” 

As for the fellowship’s future, Berkowitz said the organization could eventually even consider accepting non-Jewish fellows if their ventures are “inspired by Jewish values or could bring positive social change for the Jewish community and also for civic society.”

Here is the complete class of 2014 Tribe 12 fellows. The following descriptions of their ventures were provided by Tribe 12:

  • Steven Auerbach — Law Office of Steven Auerbach: A commercial litigation practice specializing in cases where both American and Jewish law intersect.
  • Elana Baurer — Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth: Organization wishes to affect meaningful, community-responsive changes in the juvenile justice system through advocacy-driven direct service and policy initiatives.
  • Morgan Berman — Milk Crate Philly: An app that connects people with local resources that support a sustainable lifestyle and the local economy in Philadelphia.
  • Ronit Polin — Inspire Productions: A production company aimed at producing high quality film promoting Jewish values and featuring realistic portrayals of Jewish people, to foster understanding and increase Jewish pride.
  • Rachel Sakofs — Gut Bus: Move over Magic School Bus, the Gut Bus is here to lead the community through the digestive system, one bite at a time.
  • Lauren Somers — Shine Dance Studio: A dance studio that aims to bring out the inner beauty in every dancer, and teaches that no matter who you are, you are amazing.
  • Heather Schmerman — Sign of the Times: A venture that aims to teach sign language as the world adapts.
  • Yali Szulanski — The "I Am" Project: A process-focused initiative that fosters self-care by teaching students to develop their self-awareness through a combination of breathing and meditation, mindful movements and creative expression.
  • Rachel Channah Zeldin — I'm Sorry to Hear: Often referred to as the “TripAdvisor” of funeral planning, imsorrytohear.com is the fastest growing online community dedicated to funeral planning.
  • Carly Zimmerman — Challah for Hunger Alumni Network: An online and in-person community where Challah for Hunger alum can continue their engagement with social justice work, Jewish community and philanthropy.
  • Amy Zitelman — Soom Foods: Company provides high quality tehina (sesame butter) and sub-products to the American market.

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