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Op-Ed: Innovators wanted, non-rich need not apply

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NEW YORK (JTA) — In November 2007, I had the distinct honor of representing the Jewish innovation sector in a plenary speech at the General Assembly of what was then called the United Jewish Communities. During my presentation in Nashville before 3,000 Jewish nonprofit professionals and board members, I made allusion to the fact that the expectations of existing incubators and social entrepreneur fellowships were perhaps outside the reach of many young social innovators eager to make an impact within the American and global Jewish communities. I therefore encouraged the creation of ever more opportunities for Jewish social entrepreneurs, insisting on the need for more programs like Bikkurim across the country that provide more accessibility and flexibility than offered by even Bikkurim itself.

While I believe, in retrospect, that my GA speech was more of an indicator of where things were already headed than the clarion call which effected change in and of itself, here we are now, more than two years later, and Jewish social innovation think tanks and incubators are beginning to dominate the institutional landscape. Jumpstart, Upstart, PresenTense, JHub — everywhere you look, it seems, efforts are under way to support the next generation of Jewish communal initiatives. This is an inherently good thing, in my opinion, because now more people with innovative ideas will have greater opportunities to have a significant impact.

But this model is not without its flaws, and as a Jewish social entrepreneur myself, one such flaw keeps repeatedly knocking me in the face: Who can possibly afford to participate in these programs?

On Monday evening I attended an informational session held by the newly reconstituted Joshua Venture Group at the Bikkurim offices in New York. Dozens of potential applicants, with projects ranging from the arts to education to spirituality to social justice, assembled for a half-hour presentation by the Joshua Venture’s newly minted executive director, Lisa Lepson, on the finer details of their 2010-11 fellowship program. The program seems like an outstanding, exciting and unparalleled opportunity — one to which I am eager to apply. One hundred thousand dollars over two years is no small shakes, and the networking and mentoring opportunities alone would prove invaluable.

As I did the math in my head, however, I realized it would be virtually impossible for me to do this fellowship without undertaking a massive lifestyle change, including moving out of New York City. Were I to pay myself exclusively and not spend a dime of the Joshua Venture’s money on my actual project, it would constitute a massive pay cut and a huge step back in my career trajectory. I would end up earning less than my fiancee, a Jewish day school teacher (who by no means is rolling in it), and I would be buying my own individual health insurance coverage instead of enjoying the protection and benefits of a group health plan.

Furthermore, should I opt to spend that money exclusively on myself and not on my project, I would have nothing to show to other funders to elicit their interest and solicit their support. And if I went the other way, spending nothing on myself and everything on my project, then how would I earn any money? The program obligates fellows to devote a minimum of 35 hours per week to their projects, thereby severely limiting my ability to make up the lost income with freelance work. In effect, I’d be screwed.

I had the same issue with Bikkurim, which is why I rescinded my application after making it into the second round of its application process in 2007, prompting my remarks at the GA. Bikkurim requires that you sit behind a desk at its Manhattan offices at least half the week, yet the yearly stipend it offers wouldn’t even cover two months rent and utilities (let alone food) in New York City or its suburban environs. I would have to take it on faith that I could somehow manage to raise significant funds for my project within the first four months online (in this economy?!), or I’d have to move back in with my parents. (And trust me, nobody wants that. Not me, not them, certainly not my fiancee, and definitely not the local police department.)

I spoke to Nina Bruder, Bikkurim’s executive director, and Ms. Lepson about these concerns Monday night at the Joshua Venture gathering, and they both seemed to indicate that I was essentially "s–t out of luck," to use my father’s parlance. Which is not to say that they were unsympathetic or that their initiatives are any less valuable in spite of their limitations. It merely affirms that such opportunities are not accessible to everyone.

The folks who most often participate in these programs, Ms. Bruder suggested, are usually fresh out of school, or living off their parents, spouses or savings.  And despite these incubators bandying the word "sustainability" about like "mazal tovs" at a Jewish wedding, there is positively nothing sustainable about that, let alone practical — at least not for folks like me. My parents are struggling to pay their mortgage, my soon-to-be wife will probably never break the six-figure income mark, and since I’ve spent my entire career working within the Jewish nonprofit sector, my savings look more like an emergency fund than a capital investment.

So what’s a broke social entrepreneur to do?

I couldn’t but help come away from the Monday-night session with the impression that social entrepreneurship is a privilege of the wealthy, or at least those with no other professional or personal responsibilities. Only those who already have a certain freedom, if not significant resources at their disposal, are truly eligible for the benefits these organizations are offering. Our current innovation ecosphere, as it were, is reinforcing that impression, with requirements and compensation for residencies and fellowships that are unrealistic for those of us who cannot afford to make ends meet without a full-time salary.

I’ve spent more than 10 years working inside the Jewish nonprofit sector. It’s widely held by both academics and professionals that throughout my career, I’ve contributed some of the most creative thought and innovations to the field of online Jewish engagement. And I’m sitting here on a mountain of experience and ideas yearning to upend Jewish life as we know it.

There is no doubt that I would benefit tremendously from the kind of guidance and support these programs offer — if only they were offered after work hours, to accommodate those of us in need of full-time work. But that opportunity exists nowhere as of yet.

Seeing as how I’m not a kid anymore, nor a rank capitalist or a trust fund baby, and my partner’s not a corporate attorney, my potential to contribute anything meaningful to the Jewish world other than as someone else’s schlepper appears to be nil. When subjecting oneself to pauperdom is the only way you’re ever going to get a shot at making a difference, our communal leadership shouldn’t be surprised when the best and brightest take their energies and excitement elsewhere.

As for me, looking at such prospects, I’ve got one foot out the door.

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