‘Big Bang Theory’ Actress Headlines New Entrepreneurship Program


Mayim Bialik is that rare combination: a celebrity with serious Jewish street cred. An Emmy-nominated actress who’s passionately, publicly Jewish, she dishes on the challenges of Shabbat observance as a blogger for a parenting website. She’s even got yichus, or lineage, counting among her ancestors canonical poet Hayim Bialik.

Most recently, Bialik — along with former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and several other boldfaced names — has decided to headline the “CORE18 Leaders Lab,” a fellowship for Jews ages 19 to 25 in North America, Britain and Israel that’s the offline project of JerusalemU, an Israel and Jewish education website. Bialik is one of CORE18’s co-chairs, and its announcement led with her sponsorship, so people noticed.

Some people also wondered. In this country, several similar programs already exist. Through a mix of education, mentorship, networking, funding and travel, CORE18 aims to inspire young people to serve the community and equip them to do so in the near term by helping them create a particular project.

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on but there’s so much untapped Jewish talent out there — how do we tap into that talent and get more ambitious, energetic potential Jewish leaders doing things that are going to be good for the Jewish world?” asked JoAnne Papir, one of CORE18’s directors.

ROI Community, PresentTense, Reboot, Joshua Venture, Bikkurim and the Dorot Fellowship in Israel — in addition to a plethora of programs dedicated to grooming leaders at local federations and venerable organizations like the JDC — share CORE18’s goals and many of its methods. (This reporter was a Dorot Fellow during the 1998-1999 academic year.)

Of course, the programs aren’t identical: an Israel experience is central to CORE18, ROI Community and the Dorot Fellowship, but not to the others, for example. The creation of an actual venture or project is the point of CORE18, ROI Community, PresenTense, Reboot, Joshua Venture and Bikkurim; that’s less for Dorot. But there are more similarities than differences, including most strikingly emphasis on entrepreneurship.

CORE18 is a two-stage program: the first, an “Academy” starting in January in which 36 fellows interact via weekly web-based seminars with venture capitalists, policy makers and Jewish thinkers. This phase of the program also includes two in-person gatherings, one national and one regional, and a seven-week summer internship in Israel, which also includes a certificate program in leadership.

The program is still accepting applications, having extended its deadline from Oct. 15 to 22. They expect “a few hundred,” Papir said via e-mail on Oct. 14. Most of the fellows will probably be students, Papir said, given that it might be difficult for working people to manage the summer internship.

In this phase of the program, the fellows will learn the Jewish landscape, said CORE18 co-founder and director Rabbi Moshe Zeldman.

“We’ll present them with a panorama of all the issues. Who’s doing what, what’s being done well, what’s not being done well,” he said, including Israel’s image in the world, young people’s relationship with Israel, local Jewish issues, Jewish poverty, Jewish education.

In September, the program’s second, 10-month phase will start. 18 projects will receive up to $5,000 in funding each; the fellows will participate in more distance seminars and in a mentorship program that is still being developed. They will also go an educational mission to Eastern Europe, which will focus on both the Holocaust and the revival of Jewish life there, Papir said.

CORE18’s budget is about $1 million, she said, declining to name any of the funders.

That CORE18 puts some money where its mouth is by actually funding projects appeals to Aliza Mazor, who runs Bikkurim, which provides office space, consulting and funding to young Jewish nonprofits. “I like programs that combine money and how-to,” she said.

Still, Mazor came away from the CORE18 announcement materials with lots of questions, one of them being whether another program to nurture the creation of Jewish start-ups was the best use of communal resources.

“If you have a new Jewish idea, there are plenty of addresses to which you can shop that idea. I don’t think that means there’s no need for this, it just seems like there’s not a glaring need,” she said.

Another striking similarity between CORE18 and the existing crop of similar programs is its faith in young people to provide answers to questions, like how to strengthen Jewish engagement, that seasoned professionals struggle with every day.

“This preoccupation with youth is counterproductive for an aging Jewish community where the median age is 47, and there are more talented, educated and disengaged [baby boomers] than people in their twenties,” said David Elcott, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service who also co-directs Wagner’s dual degree program in Jewish Studies.

Elcott and Mazor both also raised the question of whether CORE18 is asking its glittering faculty to teach beyond the scope of their expertise.

All such programs promise participants access to a valuable network of likeminded colleagues, but CORE18’s star power sets it apart even more than Reboot, which boasts the involvement of author Joshua Foer and entrepreneur Anne Wojicki.

Former Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar and Rabbi Sacks share the chairmanship with Bialik. Professor Alan Dershowitz, also of Harvard; longtime leader Malcolm Hoenlein; author and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky have signed on as advisers or teachers.

But Elcott maintains that mentorship is a hard thing to do well, and also a poor way for most people to learn as mentors to tend to seek mentees who are much like themselves.

“Just because people are good and successful doesn’t mean they know anything about entrepreneurship,” said Mazor. “Do they know about product, companies, new social ventures? It’s a question mark.”

The details of the mentorship aspect of the program are still being worked out, as is the exact nature of the co-chairs’ involvement, Papir and Rabbi Zeldman said. Also, they said they’re already considering broadening the age range for the program’s second round of applications.

The philosophy behind CORE18 makes it very different from all the others, its creators claim.

“I’ve been to ROI conferences, I’ve sent friends to PresenTense, I’m familiar with social entrepreneurship outside the Jewish world and the thing that’s lacking is that they’re very focused on projects but they’re not very focused on people. They’re focused on developing a person’s ideas, but not the person themselves,” said Rabbi Zeldman.

Hence the program’s emphasis on the involvement of such inspiring, impressive people as Bialik and Sharansky.

“The failure of Jewish organizations is often the failure of a leader to be an effective leader,” Rabbi Zeldman said. “If you want to become a great Jewish leader, you have to become a great person. We’re going to help people understand themselves and their strengths.”