When Eli Winkelman first had the idea of transforming her weekly challah sale at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., into a charity benefiting Sudanese refugees, she thought it would be a cool way to sell a few extra peanut-butter loaves.
Winkelman never thought the idea would galvanize hundreds of students to write letters to their lawmakers about the genocidal campaign in Darfur, raise $30,000 for the refugees, spark interest in replicating her Challah for Hunger program at campuses from coast to coast and earn her a mention in a speech by former President Bill Clinton.
"People who aren’t involved anywhere else in Jewish campus life think baking challah to help people in Darfur is cool," she said. It becomes a steppingstone for people who are getting in touch with their Jewish roots."
Two-and-a-half years after starting Challah for Hunger, and weeks after graduating from college, Winkelman, 22, is pondering her next big move. She is one of 18 fellows spending time in Israel this summer participating in the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism.
The brainchild of another pair of young innovators, Ariel Beery and Aharon Horwitz, both 27, the institute is a six-week summer program in Jerusalem for a select group of enterprising 20- and 30-somethings from Panama to the West Bank all of whom are looking for ways to change the Jewish world with fresh ideas.
Organizers of the institute hope the program, which they dreamed up several months ago, will serve as an incubator for creative Jewish concepts.
The idea is to produce great Jewish achievements not just as a result of the training the fellows receive in such fields as Web publishing, podcasting, grant writing and business development, but also as a result of the synergy among talented people working together.
"There is so little Jewish leadership development," Beery said. "There is so much talk about it, but there isn’t really a! n intens ive skill-building workshop for these kids to come in and get the skills they need. We want to open up new paths for them. The idea is to have professional development for these innovators.
"It’s the next paradigm for Jewish collective existence," he said.
It’s basically the same idea as another recent gathering in Jerusalem, the Global ROI Summit, where 120 young Jewish innovators from all over the world assembled for a four-day meeting of the minds.
Run under the auspices of birthright israel and the Center for Leadership Initiatives, the summit also offered participants workshops in building online communities, publishing webzines and making films.
But the primary goal appeared to be networking. Computer geeks mingled with bloggers, filmmakers dissected Kafka with doctoral students and artists shared their creative visions with anyone willing to listen over a glass of wine.
"The idea is to train emerging leaders in the Jewish community," Yonatan Gordis, director of programs at the Center for Leadership Initiatives, said over cocktails at sunset in the Israel Museum sculpture garden. "Here in Israel they have a chance to engage, cross-country and cross-topic. They think collectively."
Participants came from Russia, Latin America, Israel, the United States, Australia, South Africa pretty much anywhere there are Jews. There were TV reporters, Webmasters, Hillel directors, CEOs of start-up companies, environmental activists, Israel advocates, museum programmers and, of course, an assortment of Jewish community professionals.
A few of the Creative Zionism Institute fellows were there, too.
"It’s an interesting group," said Jeremy Kossen, 34, founder of the recently launched Jewish culture and entertainment site JewTube.com.
Promoted as "Facebook meets YouTube for Jews," JewTube aims to become the central address for Jewish entertainment, culture, education and advocacy insofar as it c! an fit i nto a five-minute video clip.
Kossen said he originated the idea when he couldn’t find relevant, interesting Jewish multimedia content on the Internet. He said the summit was helpful mainly in getting his new Web site widespread attention in the Israeli media.
Philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, who sponsored both the ROI summit and the Creative Zionism Institute through the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, said participants in these events are the rising stars of the Jewish people.
"I’m sorry I don’t have the time to sit and visit with each and every one of them," she said.
Schusterman said it’s no coincidence that the programs are in Israel.
"One of the tracks of the summit is Israel advocacy," she said, "and Israel is the Jewish people’s home."
Horwitz, of the Creative Zionism Institute, said Israel should be the creative platform for the Jewish people. As the co-editor of BlogsofZion.org, he also was one of the ROI fellows.
"Israel is a hub for the Diaspora. In Israel we have the spirit, wisdom, knowledge and social capital to take the next step forward in Jewish collective life," he said.
Beyond all the argot and hype, it appeared as if something indeed was being accomplished at 3 HaRan St., where the Creative Zionism Institute is housed in an apartment turned dormitory with a broadband Internet connection.
Wires crisscrossed the floor where one fellow sat tapping out computer code for an easy-to-use Web-based publishing system, while another, Matt Barr, worked on Bible-inspired rap music (http://mattbar.com/music-43.html).
Horwitz said the institute is modeled on high-tech incubators, where people with promising ideas are given the resources they need to succeed and make money for their investors.
In this case, he and Beery said, the dividend is new and improved Jewish life.
"We’re trying to create 360-degree solutions for Jewish problems," Beery said, speaking rapidly and p! eppering his monologue with the latest buzzwords.
"The Jewish world is at a crossroads right now, with the information age affecting entire humanity, but specifically the Jews, who are spread around the world," he said. "We’re trying to unify the Jewish world and create new ways for the Jewish world to think, act, work and program."
A lofty goal, Beery acknowledged as he took a breath, but one worth aiming to reach.
Perhaps, he admitted with a yawn, it’s why he finds so little time to sleep.