Sunday, July 19, 2009


I must admit, my ancient Israeli roots reared their obstinate heads at the beginning of the ROI Summit, leading me to enter it with a hearty dose of skepticism. For one thing, we did a group exercise on the first night that asked all sorts of questions to gauge the makeup of the group at large. One asked if people would feel comfortable being married by a female Rabbi and the answers came back about 50% yes and 50% no. Another flat out asked if we considered ourselves “conservative” or “liberal” and, once again, the assemblage was split. As much as I appreciate diversity of ideas, I began to dread the thought of spending four days debating, yet again, whether or not Barack Obama is “good for Israel.”

My skepticism continued in the morning, as we entered into a round of exceedingly cheesy icebreakers, led by a little British man with a megaphone who was vaguely reminiscent of Mr. Bean. These included one exercise where you and a partner had to sit on the ground, holding hands and touching feet and then help each other stand up without letting go. All of the religious people were aghast. AWKWARD! It didn’t help that my first partner dropped me on my bum, onto a pile of rocks, ripping a hole right in the seat of my shorts. Great. As if these icebreakers weren’t mortifying enough, now I’m flashing my panties to a bunch of conservative guys who don’t even touch women before marriage. Eek!


Fortunately, an angry mob never tracked me down, and it didn’t take very long for me to drink the Kool-Aid, or more appropriately in this case, the icekafeh (a yummy Israeli Frappuccino-slurpee concoction that was conveniently on hand for all events.) As usual, it was the people who brought me around. As soon as I first met with my Arts & Culture track as a group, I knew that something special was about to happen.

You can see the bios of my 15 fellow artsy- fartsies here, along with that of our lovely colleague and track facilitator, rocker chick Naomi Less. The group was about as diverse as could be in a Jewish context, including religious and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, Mexican, British, Israeli, American, Chilean, German, Hungarian, and from all over the arts world—filmmakers, cartoonists, a comedian, musicians, a performance artist, and art events promoters. This diversity could have led to an emotional drama disaster, but we met as a group several times throughout the week between the other scheduled activities like skill workshops and networking events, and managed to easily find common passions despite our geographic and other differences.

(Sketch of an Arts & Culture track meeting by the talented participant, Chari Pere. Can you tell which one is me?)

We truly bonded as a group and inspired one another with our very diverse tales of success and failure and brainstorming about how we, as a community, can help legitimize “Jewish art,” getting down to even what that term means anymore and where the Holocaust fits into the current Jewish artistic landscape, if at all.

After the summit, I visited the Tel Aviv Art Museum, which just happened to be showing a recreation of an exhibit from Berlin in 1907—more than 100 years ago—called “THE FRAGMENTED MIRROR EXHIBITION OF JEWISH ARTISTS.” The show explored some of the very same topics of Jewish art, assimilation and cultural paradoxes that we had been discussing. It was amazing to me that I had just been involved in such a similar discussion—more than 100 years later. For me, it underscored the importance of that ongoing conversation, because I truly believe that it is the arts that keep the Jewish people vital and relevant. In fact, the de facto slogan of one of our participants’ projects, Omanoot, kind of became a rallying cry for our group:


Branching out from the A & C track, I met truly incredible and passionate young people doing all sorts of amazing things, like starting an environmental summer camp, running organizations that facilitate heart transplants for Arab children or college educations for Ethiopian girls in Israel, reimagining contemporary culture through the Jewish Salons project and so much more.

Perhaps the most exciting encounters of all were with the brains and bank behind this incredible operation, Lynn Schusterman. Celebrating her 70th birthday this year, Mrs. Schusterman is pretty, petite, and a total firecracker who wields her financial power in part through boundary-breaking philanthropy.

The Jewish funding climate has often seemed to me to be based on fear, sometimes to the detriment of the funders’ original causes, and often impending projects that could take the Jewish future in new and exciting directions. My experience with ROI, however, was quite the opposite of this. Mrs. Schusterman and her cohorts brought people together with the specific directive of innovation in mind. People making real change. People with a shared passion of revitalizing Jewish tradition. People with sometimes--GASP!—controversial ideas. I can’t even express how refreshing this was for me.

One of the running themes of Mrs. Schusterman’s addresses to use was her desire to extend the legacy of her husband and fellow philanthropist, Charles Schusterman, though her work with projects like ROI. I hope we can make her proud and give her the Return on Investment that she desires.


The ROI Summit was four days of little sleep, lots of good food, intensive networking and hours of interesting, mind-opening, sometimes challenging dialogue between passionate, articulate young people from all over the world. In short, pretty freakin awesome. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this entry.

(Arts & Culture peeps Samuel/Antithesis, Andrea, Ziv, Alon, Elina, Rachel, me, Michelle, Naomi, Dafna and Cheri)

One more thing worth mentioning, however, is that some unexpected seeds were planted for me in terms of a new documentary project. Between discussions with some ROIers from Jerusalem and a surprise visit from that city’s young, dynamic new mayor, Nir Barkat, I think I may just be onto something. There is apparently a youth-led cultural and political renaissance afoot in Jerusalem that is reminiscent of the wave of current youth activism around the world. It seems like a very exciting and potentially dramatic topic that is definitely worth exploring. Stay tuned…

A big shout out also goes to the incredible staff of this event—Jewish innovators in their own right—who absolutely worked their asses of for 20 hours a day to make sure that things went smoothly all week long. Thank you and Kol ha kavod!


Esther Kustanowitz said...

Amazing to finally get a peek inside your brain, Liz. Thanks for your commentary and wishing you amazing experiences in Haiti. Be sure to keep all your ROI peeps in the loop.

Michael-Yoav E. Amsellem said...

Great post Liz !
What a pleasure to read you...

I would be so glad to share some ideas with you...

The French guy...