Hot Boutiques or the New Macy's?
Aliza Mazor, Hadashot
As the Jewish community takes stock of its resources for renewal and reinvention, an important source of new ideas, fresh energy, and compelling products is often overlooked. This treasure trove is located right in the heart of UJC in the form of the entrepreneurial start-ups that are resident in Bikkurim: The Incubator for New Jewish Ideas. Bikkurim was founded in 2000 as a joint initiative of UJC, JESNA, and the Kaminer Family. Modeled on business incubators, Bikkurim provides facilities, equipment, training, coaching, networking, and peer support to 10 new ventures in the Jewish community. Since its inception, Bikkurim has played host to over 18 such initiatives helping them move from the idea stage towards sustainability.
Identifying New Ideas Bikkurim believes that new ideas combined with entrepreneurial energies have the capacity to transform and reinvigorate our community. What makes an idea new? The resident projects at Bikkurim run the gamut from promoting environmental awareness in the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox community, to creating a new festival of Jewish learning and culture, to providing services to young Jewish women with breast cancer. Bikkurim does not screen applicants based on common programmatic categories (Israel, Anti-Semitism, social services) or age targets (youth, young adults, elders), rather Bikkurim seeks out innovative ideas which often defy categories and cross generational boundaries. Under the broad rubric of adding value to the Jewish landscape, Bikkurim has sought projects that challenge paradigms, identify unmet needs, re-frame urgent questions, and create new products. Through this framework, revolutionary ideas such as Storahtelling (reviving the ancient art of Jewish ritual theater), Toldot (the first on-line Jewish museum for children), and Ayecha (celebrating diversity and practicing inclusion) have been born.
Harnessing Entrepreneurial Energies Another important gift that these groups bring to the community is a fast-paced, entrepreneurial style of organizing. The leaders of these enterprises are driven, often founding the organization with their own money and putting in endless volunteer hours before they ever draw a salary. Entrepreneurs tend to be risk-takers. The urgency of meeting the needs they have identified is so great that they are willing to experiment with untested ideas and unconventional organizational models. They tend to be tenacious and creative in approaching obstacles and challenges. The leadership is charismatic and is often able to galvanize resources and support from unlikely sources. In many cases, a revenue stream has been built into the organizational model. For example, Hazon raises a third of its budget through its Jewish environmental bike rides and JDub Records raises a comparable portion of its budget though ticket and record sales. The Jewish community as a whole could benefit from a more entrepreneurial, less risk-averse approach to doing business.
Achieving Impact One of the most impressive facets of this cadre of new organizations is the tremendous impact and growth they have experienced in a relatively short amount of time. Rough estimates show that Bikkurims residents and alumni have collectively reached over 200,000 people and capitalized over three million dollars. Bikkurim residents have been featured in the New York Times, LA Times, Forward, Jerusalem Report, Wall Street Journal, Time Out New York, Haartez, and have appeared on CBS, MSNBC, NPR, the Today Show, MTV and more. The intangibles are even more impressive than some of the quantitative achievements. Bikkurim residents have successfully placed new issues on the Jewish communal agenda (diversity, organ donation, environmental awareness). They have engaged elusive populations the unaffiliated, 20-somethings, inter-faith families. They have empowered young leadership, Jews in their 20s and 30s who are inspired and inspiring, taking an active role in shaping the future of the community. They are creating new paradigms of communal involvement mobilizing a new breed of volunteers who design, drive, and implement almost every aspect of their organization on a year-round basis. Imagine what the community would look like if there was an endless flow of energized young leadership, a passionate pool of volunteers, and a diverse range of programming initiated at the grassroots level. To quote the Master card commercial: priceless.
Hot Boutiques or The New Macys?
Based on the above description one might think that every Jewish community in the country would be clamoring to identify and support its own visionaries and entrepreneurs and that these new ventures would be embraced by established institutions. Yet, Bikkurim residents and their fellow entrepreneurs often feel marginalized. Despite a craving throughout the community to bring young people to the table, there is often a reluctance to support them in running their own enterprises. Few are willing to invest in ideas that are untested and leadership that is young. Some worry that supporting new, entrepreneurial ventures will proliferate too many new projects and create more mouths to feed for already overburdened funding streams. Others assert (the most dreaded moniker among start-ups), that these projects are cute but largely irrelevant. The investors that have put stock in these groups UJA Federation of New York through COJIR, Solelim and the Jewish Womens Foundation of New York; venture philanthropy funds (Natan and the Federations in New York and LA); and a handful of family foundations believe that the rewards of investment far outweigh the risks.
In many ways, these enterprises function as hot boutiques in the Jewish communal world setting trends and breaking new ground, but never being recognized for the revolution they are creating. Their collective impact the huge numbers they are reaching (particularly among the young, unaffiliated, and inter-faith families), their capacity for innovation, their passionate leadership, and their new models of doing business make them worthy of serious consideration and may even earn them the title department store of the future.
The writer is the Organizational Development Specialist for Bikkurim: The Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.