PresenTense Joins JDC In Russia


Russia has long been known for its musicians — and for the grueling conservatories in which those musicians are trained. The notion of learning and playing an instrument for pleasure is a foreign one, but with the support of PresenTense, the Jewish social entrepreneurship incubator, Sergey Novikov is trying to change that.

Novikov, 29, is a member of PresenTense’s first effort in Moscow — called the Kaet Fellowship — where it is partnering with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). An avid amateur musician, Internet security expert and enthusiastic participant in Moscow’s Jewish community, Novikov plans to use the Kaet, which means “now” in Hebrew, to create a school of Jewish music and art where classes are more fun and less formal.

“If even 50 percent of the projects work, [Kaet] will change the whole Jewish community in Moscow,” Novikov said. “Life inside the Jewish community is getting more and more interesting.”

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union is undergoing a renaissance that includes the sprouting of congregations from Chabad to Reform, almost 200 Jewish community centers and Hillel chapters on campus.

PresenTense helps its fellows implement their ideas by giving them support and training — but not funding. The Moscow cohort, which is PresenTense’s first initiative outside of Israel and the United States, has 13 members planning a range of projects, including a database of a Jewish cemetery, a theater group for released Jewish prison inmates and massive book-and-toy exchanges and garage sales for Jewish families. PresenTense, also recently announced the fellowship classes in eight other cities, including Jerusalem, New York and Cleveland, for a total of 129 fellows.

“The JDC wanted exciting new projects in the community,” said Elizabeth Fine, who runs international relations and development in the Moscow office. “We’re also interested in the multiplier effect. By engaging one fellow, we have the potential to touch dozens of other people.”

PresenTense and the JDC are a bit of an odd couple. The JDC most recently reported revenue of $221.9 million, compared with PresenTense’s $246,490. The JDC is an old-school service organization: it’s been around for almost 100 years and has been in Russia since 1988, where it supports or operates 55 Jewish community centers and helps needy populations including the elderly, sick children and the poor.

PresenTense, whose slogan is “Fostering Innovation,” has been doing fellowships like the one in Moscow for about three years and has started as a magazine in 2005. Instead of providing money, or services, supports its participants in their efforts to build the skills and networks of relationships. First, the organization recruits a local executive committee of established leaders, which in turn helps to select the fellows and to recruit a roster of coaches and mentors who try to help the fellows make their visions a reality.

“The JDC brings to the table a well-established, robust network and a strong infrastructure, while PresenTense complements that with an innovative program to involve those young people in ways they haven’t been before,” said Michael Podberezin, PresenTense’s Moscow representative.