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Jerusalem, capital of Jewish innovation

Jerusalem has produced dozens of social entrepreneurs in recent years. What is the secret of the golden city with the troubled image? And why do its young people so filled with conviction want to change the world?

Each year, in honor of Jerusalem Day, we are inundated with facts and figures about our capital city: the number of people moving in, the number leaving; how many Jews, how many Arabs, yada, yada. And while Haaretz reported Thursday a net gain in public elementary school enrollment — meaning secular Israelis are choosing to live in the capital — all too often, Jerusalem is portrayed as a battleground of Jew vs. Arab, left vs. right, and the ultra-Orthodox vs. everyone else.

I’ll concede Jerusalem has its challenges. But there is so much good news bubbling up from the grassroots, in direct contradiction to the image of Jerusalem as a poor, aging, ultra-Orthodox city.

When we looked at the data from within our own ROI Community global network, which includes over 800 Jewish innovators in more than 40 countries on six continents, we were pleased to discover that Jerusalem led every other place, with 8.8 percent of the social innovators from Jerusalem alone. New York and Tel Aviv tied for second place, with 7.7 percent each.

But these figures don’t convey the incredible projects on the ground. Machshava Tova, an NGO that opens computerized community centers for poorer populations throughout Israel, was born in Jerusalem; Bema’aglei Tzedek, too, the movement for social justice based on Jewish values, started its activities in Jerusalem. Young Jerusalemites began to take responsibility for the future of the city and set up movements such as AwakeningNew Spirit and Yerushalmim. Then there are the dynamic Jewish study initiatives like Elul, the Yeshiva Chilonit and Yeshivat TalpiotPresenTense has spread from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Boston and the FSU. Jerusalem Season of Culture showcases the city’s contemporary cultural treasures; think about events like Balabasta in the market, and Muslala, that capture the uniqueness of the city and could only be found here in Jerusalem. And there are so many other examples.

A view of Jerusalem's Jaffa Road (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A view of Jerusalem's Jaffa Road (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

What is the secret of Jerusalem’s magic? How does it inspire its finest young adults to do their utmost to improve their community and surroundings?

Social innovators see an imperfect world, then take responsibility and immediately look for solutions, trying to fill the half-full glass. From this perspective, Jerusalem is a perfect incubator for entrepreneurs seeking to fix their neighborhoods, their society and the world. It is precisely Jerusalem’s complexities, the very confrontations between clashing populations, that make it interesting, varied, suffused with identities, and most especially, a place where there is space for whomever chooses to act.

Jerusalem is a fertile breeding ground for creativity, action and change. Its energy, dynamism, different faiths and colors, the fact that everyone grasps it tightly and is unwilling to let go, its history, but especially its future – all these create a unique expanse that encourages young people with that social spark to get off the fence, take responsibility and shape the future.

Now that this process has started, it can’t be stopped. Social innovators naturally connect and collaborate with one another. The upshot of this is simple: Jerusalem will continue to be a microcosm and serve as the natural habitat for social initiatives in the coming years, too. With a little faith and a lot of work, today’s young innovators will model the scriptures by carrying their messages from Zion to the entire world.

About the Author
Justin Korda, ROI Community’s Executive Director, has been with ROI since its inception in 2005. He was influenced by his Jewish activist experiences growing up in Montreal, Canada, that saw young people as “Robin Hoods” for change. Justin believes in the importance of making Judaism accessible to a new generation of Jews who live in a secular world that competes for their interest. In 1999, Justin led the first Taglit-Birthright Israel trip from Canada. He went on to become the coordinator of follow-up programs for returning participants and later served in a number of positions at the Canada-Israel Experience, where he was instrumental in implementing Taglit-Birthright Israel for the first 5,000 Canadian participants. Justin holds an M.B.A. from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. He and his wife, Yael, live in Jerusalem, with their son, daughter and dog.
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