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Ross Berkowitz has made a career of creating opportunities for local Jews.
Over the past nine years, he has overseen the dramatic expansion of a young professionals group, started an annual citywide “learningfest,” launched a social entrepreneur fellowship and folded all these programs into the nonprofit Tribe 12.
Housed on the second floor of the Gershman Y, Tribe 12’s offices are unprepossessing: a few aging couches, some cafeteria tables, a couple of bridge tables and a bunch of half-empty Coke bottles in the large front room, with three small offices in the rear — a spartan setting for an organization with big aims: “to get people to care about Judaism and be involved in the Jewish community and choose to remain involved. I want to bring my passion for Judaism and Israel to others,” says Berkowitz, Tribe 12’s 39-year-old founder and executive director.
He credits Annabel Lindy, a longtime activist in Jewish affairs who died in 2010, as the spark behind his work.
Hoping to connect Jews in their 20s and 30s, Lindy funded the creation of the Collaborative in 1997. She hired Berkowitz, with a background in Hillel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other Jewish organizations, to run it in 2003.
Berkowitz says he was eager to work with people in their 20s and 30s because those “are transition years. If Judaism doesn’t come into play when you’re deciding on spouses and where to live, it won’t be there in the future.”
As the years passed, however, Berkowitz found himself more removed from the social scene as a young father. He turned most of the Collaborative programming duties over to other staff members and focused on new projects, like LimmudPhilly, which marked its fourth annual “Panoramic Jewish Learningfest” this spring.
He didn’t stop there, creating Tribe 12 in fall 2010 as an overarching cooperative for independent programs serving the needs of the Jewish community. Just to be sure the city would never run out of those, Tribe 12 unveiled a “Social Entrepreneur Fellowship” with financial support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and curriculum from PresenTense.
About a dozen budding entrepreneurs try to bring their socially minded ventures to fruition. They attend workshops over a five-month period to learn the nuts and bolts of putting together a business. Each fellow is assigned a coach and a mentor to help make introductions and open doors.
The 2011 projects included Michal Waldfogel’s Deep Breath Baking, which combines yoga with making challah; Randy Schulz’s American Israel Business Lab, which assists Israeli entrepreneurs as they set up shop in the United States; and Jared Jackson’s Jews in All Hues, which encourages people of dual heritage to accept and embrace their Jewish identity.
One of this year’s fellows is Elisa Heisman. She has an idea she calls “Shul Solutions,” that would help synagogues figure out “how to be relevant all the time,” not just during the holidays and life cycle events. She says the fellowship has taught her how to refine her ideas and identify — and, hopefully, solve — problems she’s likely to encounter.
“It’s been terrific,” she says, adding that she’s preparing a trial run of one her seminars at a local synagogue. “The entire group has good ventures and we motivate each other.”
-Additional reporting for this profile was provided by Deborah Hirsch