The Infinite Light

By Alyssa Kapnik

Mira Stern

Mira Stern enjoying some Kabbalah

It’s the week before Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish celebration of the trees, and Kevah Teaching Fellow Shayna Orfus holds a pistachio nut in her fingers. We all hold pistachio nuts in our fingers.  Shayna quietly asks us to close our eyes.  She’s been teaching this particular Kevah group since October, and seems very much at ease with the women in the room.“Feel the nut,” she says. “And consider its hard shell.”  She wants us to consider, for the few seconds before breaking the shell and popping the tiny green nut into our mouths, its tough, inedible armor.

Then Shayna asks us to acknowledge the “pistachio nuts” within each of us.  The pistachio, we’re to understand, is like the rich goodness of our souls.  The parts we so often protect with some sort of metaphorical hard outer layer.  She wants us to question what our own “shells” are made of.  Our self-created barriers.  The protective layers that keep us at times from connecting with others, from opening up, from being vulnerable and exposed.

The class is geared toward learning about Kabbalah, and the three 25 year old women seated around the table, Katy, Mira and Becky, are hanging in there, asking questions, leading the discussion for brief moments into glimpses of their personal lives.  This is a women’s learning group, and the three here now are the core of it.   And they seem truly engaged and fascinated.

shayna orfus

Shayna Orfus, with a pistachio

Every few minutes, Shayna delivers insights into the depths of this philosophy, this mystical tradition that stretches across continents and centuries.  “The body is the shoe of the soul,” she says.  She goes on to explain that our souls are so much bigger than the confines of our physical selves.  The whole two-hour class is dedicated tonight to talking about it, and we move regularly between reading from the text in front of us to discussing the Jewish concept of soul.  It is much too big to grasp, but we do our best, holding pistachios, apricots, grapes and vanilla extract.  We’re doing a sort of limited version of the Tu B’Shvat seder, celebrating the birthday of the trees, and all that trees produce.

Here we are, sitting at the top of San Francisco on a winter’s night, looking out at the skyline and the Bay Bridge from a warm, lovely apartment, talking about concepts we can’t possibly fully understand.  The infinite light of unified oneness.  The five levels of our souls.  A god that retracts itself into itself to make room for our universe.

Shayna gently encourages us to do our best with all of this soul talk.  “Take in as much or as little as you want.  This is serious Kabbalah.  Let’s just honor where you are.”  The women at the table aren’t put off.  They seem to want more.

becky cook

Becky Cook participates in the discussion

This is what Torah learning can be.  Open and enlightening and, yes, at times confusing.  Because the questions are limitless.  The questions about God and ancient texts and this immense store of knowledge that can sometimes feel like climbing into a dark cave.  It’s nice, after a few hours of studying, a few hours of grasping at the light, to know that we’ve tried.  We’ve broken the pistachio shell, and are for a short while, together, eating the rich green fruit inside.

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Jeremy Weintraub and the Wide Open Door

By Alyssa Kapnik

Jeremy Weintraub didn’t grow up religious.  “Totally secular,” as he put it.  He first connected with Judaism in college, and then started exploring the Jewish world in various ways: traveling with Birthright, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Knowledge in Israel.

jeremy with fam

Jeremy with his family

And now, Weintraub is committed to Jewish life in Berkeley.  He moved to the Bay Area from New York two years ago with his wife, Miranda.  He identifies as Jewish—he’s definitely Jewish—but isn’t super observant.  In most Jewish settings, he says, there’s a steep learning curve.  There’s a lot to miss.  A lot to misunderstand.  You might walk in and have no idea how to participate in a service.  You might just not connect with the rituals.  Judiasm is just not necessarily inclusive, and it’s often hard to connect – to other Jews, to the materials, to Jewish history and ritual.  “But the truth is,” he says, “Judaism is a really human religion.  And it’s nice to be in a group where we focus on that.”

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The East Bay Chevre Kevah Group meets in Berkeley

Weintraub is the organizer for the East Bay Chevre Kevah Group, a group of about 10—depending on the week—that’s been meeting twice a month for four years, long before the Weintraubs moved to town. Rabbi David Kasher was the teacher for the group for years, and they’re just now beginning to move in a new direction.  Kasher led the group beautifully, Jeremy said, but the word “taught” might be a bit misleading.  The group is engaged and excited, and their classes are much more about eliciting great conversation than about lecture.  Last year, in the class just after the high holidays, Kasher apparently started the Kevah group by saying, “Sure, you’re being sealed in the Book of Life.  But what do these concepts actually mean to you?”  The question might seem obvious, but we don’t necessarily ask.  So the East Bay Chevre had an honest dialogue about it, and it truly touched Weintraub.

The group is starting their fifth year of studying with a new charge: an extended unit on Mussar, ethics, with teacher Rabbi Alissa Wise.  Weintraub is excited to have fresh perspectives in the group, and a bit of an altered framework.  But he was a little nervous, seeing as how the East Bay Chevre group has worked for so long so well just exactly the way it is.  The Chevre has created a sense of closeness among friends, depth in conversation, and an expanding dialogue on what it means to be a part of a Jewish community.  The new set up is already going well, and the group is excited with the direction it’s taken.

“Rituals have their place,” Weintraub says, “but you can also experience Juadism without the rituals.”  Judaism should be a place for human interaction, he insists.  It’s a comfort to him that the Kevah group isn’t a huge time commitment.  There’s some schmoozing, some learning, and the option for those involved to expand beyond the group into real friendships.  The point, though, beyond all of the details of what they’re learning, is that this small group, these 8-14 individuals meeting twice a month, helps him feel like this strange and amorphous collection of ideas and history – this Judaism – is, as he says, “ours.”  He feels the connection, and he loves it.  With Kevah, he says, the door is so wide, and so open.

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Executive Director Sara Bamberger named Joshua Venture Group Fellow


The Joshua Venture Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reinvigorating and expanding the Jewish community through building the capacity of young ventures and their leadership, announced that Sara Heitler Bamberger, Executive Director of Kevah, and seven other social entrepreneurs in North America, will each receive more than $100,000 in grants and organizational development support as Fellows of its 2012-14 Dual Investment Program.

Each Fellow will receive $80,000 in unrestricted funding and over $20,000 in personalized coaching, training and networking, which equip them to realize their visions to transform the Jewish landscape. JVG’s Dual Investment Program is designed to bolster the emergence of the Jewish innovation sector, which reflects the collective desire of Jews from all backgrounds to re-envision their own Jewish communities.

Executive Director of the Joshua Venture Group, Lisa Lepson, said, “Looking at the greater Jewish landscape, it is clear that the market for new ideas is plentiful.  JVG excels at identifying the most promising of these emerging ideas, refining them and taking them to scale. We have succeeded in this endeavor, due to long-standing support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.”

The eJewish Philanthropy blog notes that JVG alumni have been at the forefront of their respective fields since the organization’s first cohort launched in 2001. “They have advocated for LGBT inclusion in Jewish communities, provided needed support to young Jewish women and their families battling breast cancer and worked to put the courageous efforts of Jewish partisans during WWII on the Jewish and broader education maps. The recently graduated Fellows of JVG’s 2010-2012 cohort are now working on re-imagining what it means to belong to and participate in spiritual communities, leveraging new media to breathe new life into biblical stories and texts and connecting the general causes of the economic, social and food justice movements to Jewish values, teachings and practice.”

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Kevah Featured in 2012-13 Slingshot Guide

Slingshot LogoSlingshot, A Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, is an annual compilation of the most inspiring and innovative organizations, projects, and programs in the North American Jewish community today. First published in 2005, Slingshot continues to highlight those organizations in Jewish life with particular resonance among the next generation. Since its inception, Slingshot has highlighted 173 innovative Jewish organizations in North America.

According to Slingshot, we’re one of the 50 most inspirational organizations in Jewish life.

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From the JWeekly: It Takes a Minyan

We’re delighted that Kevah is part of George Altshuler’s search for independent and communal, spirtitual and religious Judaism.

This column originally appeared in the JWeekly, and is written by George Altshuler.

Growing up in San Francisco, I’d often hear people describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” While many people who said this wanted to distance themselves from traditional religions, I also believe this statement expresses a desire to think independently and create one’s own religious path.

While I’ve always taken pride in being Jewish (my bar mitzvah speech ended with a resounding — and voluntary — vow to continue Jewish study past my confirmation), I’ve also followed this approach of pursuing a spiritual life independently.

I’ve had spiritual moments in nature that I didn’t experience in terms of my Judaism; my religious life has been informed by other religions; and, like many Jews, I’ve developed my own approach to the High Holy Days. But, more generally, I’ve simply felt that I was making decisions and forming my spiritual life by myself.

georgeThis practice of individual spirituality may seem to go against tradition, but one could say that there is a longstanding and rich history in this country of going about religion independently.

Two of the great figures of American religious life are Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the most enduring images of these two men, for me at least, are of each one alone. There’s Jefferson by himself in his study literally cutting and pasting a new version of the Bible together, and there’s Emerson alone in the woods losing himself in nature.

As someone who has had spiritual moments alone and values solitary reflection on these types of questions, part of me will always fit into this mold of going about religion alone.

And yet my individual efforts have sometimes nagged me as being a little too solitary. On a break from college five or so years ago, I returned to a place on the Sonoma County coast where I had previously felt spiritually connected, and things just didn’t mesh this time. After a day of reading and hiking, I drove away feeling mostly bored and unfulfilled.

But gradually, as I’ve grown older, I have begun to learn about and experience the more personal parts of religion with other people, and in particular, with other Jews.

During my time at Middlebury College in Vermont, I gained close friends through the campus Hillel, and I became more comfortable discussing my spirituality in terms of Judaism. From study sessions with eight or so people that went late into the night to small Havdallah services, it was empowering to be part of a group whose members were dedicated to learning about Judaism and living better Jewish lives.

Since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve found more Jewish groups with which to learn, including a new philosophy study group facilitated by Kevah, the nonprofit that organizes Jewish study groups.

Sitting around a table with a group of people focused on religious study has been energizing, and it has also offered me a reminder that collective values such as tikkun olam and a commitment to social justice are key parts of religious life.

Through it all, however, I still value the autonomous approach to religion. As Emerson once warned, one must experience religion firsthand or risk “stale” religion. But even the American tradition of religious autonomy contains an appreciation for the importance of exchanges with others. Jefferson, for example, justified freedom of religion in part by saying that it would enable debate that would in turn be good for people’s religious experiences.

Debate and engaging in conversation are of course critical components of the Jewish religious tradition, as exemplified by the Talmud and its commentaries. There are plenty of examples of Jews engaging in religious study in groups: We have yeshivas and hevrutah, the practice of studying in pairs. And for me, compiling the calendar for j. has provided a weekly window into the logistics of how Jews love to get together and exchange ideas.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbah bar bar Hannah asks why God compares his words to fire in Jeremiah 23:29. The rabbi’s answer? God does this “in order to teach you that just as a fire cannot burn alone, so too the words of Torah cannot prevail in isolation.”

Maybe I needed a minyan with me that time on the Sonoma coast.

George Altshuler
 lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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Kevah Launches Teaching Fellowship with help from Jim Joseph Foundation Grant

IMG_0151Upon awarding Kevah with the great honor of a grant, the Jim Joseph Foundation said this, “Through its pluralistic network of self-organized Torah study groups, Kevah already empowers individuals to take ownership of their Jewish and spiritual lives by creating their own micro-communities. Kevah study groups, such as ‘Peninsula Russian Young Adults’ and ‘Oakland Hipsters,’ meet monthly to examine relevant Jewish themes. Now, with its new Teaching Fellowship, Kevah is also helping to create tomorrow’s innovative Jewish educators.”

See the rest of the article here.

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From the JWeekly: Fifty Shades of Talmud

This article originally appeared in the JWeekly, as a column by Sue Fishkoff

The most difficult challenge I’ve ever undertaken was studying Talmud. I say “studying” like it was a college course on Derrida or Russian, both of which I found significantly easier. At least they have punctuation.

I took a Talmud class 20 years ago in Jerusalem. We met three times a week and, in a year, we got through 10 pages. It’s that hard.

So why are so many Jews suddenly taking it up? Here in the Bay Area, there are now dozens of classes, with hundreds of students. Some have been going on for years; others are just launching this fall. This is hard, hard stuff that takes a lot of commitment — 71⁄2 years of daily study to get through the Daf Yomi, a page-a-day cycle followed by Jews around the world.

What’s going on?

sue_fishkoffFirst, new translations have made Talmud more accessible to English speakers. In 2005, ArtScroll came out with its 73-volume Schottenstein Talmud, in English and the original Aramaic/Hebrew, and this past May, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz published the first volume of his much-anticipated new English translation of the Talmud. While slogging through the original text is absolutely required for real understanding, having the English in front of you makes it a lot easier.

The immediate impetus, however, might have been widespread Siyum HaShas celebrations Aug. 2, organized to mark the completion of the latest Daf Yomi cycle. More than 90,000 people, mostly Orthodox men, jammed into the stadium formerly known as the Meadowlands in New Jersey for the biggest and most publicized party; smaller ones took place worldwide.

A Talmud party! Woo-hoo! Yet it seems to have touched off a phenomenon. Last month, the JTA Jewish news service wrote about newbies who, in the wake of the New Jersey gathering, joined the new Daf Yomi cycle that began the next day.

“It did spark a lot of interest,” says Rabbi Joey Felsen, who heads up the Jewish Study Network, which launched a Daf Yomi group 71⁄2 years ago in Palo Alto. Six men finished that cycle, and more have joined the new group, which meets every day at 5:30 a.m. (before morning prayers, natch).

For those who can’t quite stomach the hour, Felsen launched a second Daf Yomi group in the evening, made up entirely of new students. Other Talmud groups meet in San Francisco.

And it’s not just the Orthodox. Reform Temple Isaiah in Walnut Creek has held a Thursday Talmud class for more than a decade; this month, it’s launching a second weekly class, on Sundays.

“It’s not dry,” says Rabbi Shalom Bochner of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, where he started a weekly Talmud class soon after he arrived 31⁄2 years ago. “The fun is the constant question and answer, the back and forth. It’s like a strange board game that has its own logic.”

Bochner’s group is on page 38a of the 64-page tractate “Berachot.” That’s about half a page a week.  “We’re on the 75-year cycle,” he says. But he has no doubt his regulars will stick with it.

“There are so few topics that excite people to this level,” he says.

The mother of all Bay Area Talmud classes might be the one started by Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan 22 years ago in San Francisco, a project of Reform Congregation Emanu-El. It’s drawn an average of 20 people a week ever since.

When Wolf-Prusan parted ways with Emanu-El two years ago and joined Lehrhaus Judaica, his Talmud class followed him. In the fall of 2011, Lehrhaus joined with Kevah, the Berkeley-based catalyst for adult Jewish text learning, and Steinsaltz’s New York–based Aleph Society, to create the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle, a consortium of grassroots-generated study groups.

Last year they ran six groups. This month, the second year is launching with 11 cohorts in Berkeley, Marin and San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

Apparently, the Bay Area was the only place in the country to take up the Aleph Society’s challenge of creating community-wide Talmud study groups.

“They were pretty surprised there is so much interest in Talmud in the Bay Area,” Wolf-Prusan says. “We’re not known for our frumkeit.” (That’s “religiosity,” for the Yiddishly-challenged.)

Full disclosure? Last winter I joined a Kevah Talmud group. Who knows where it will lead.

Come on in, the water’s fine.


Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at

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From the JWeekly: Start ’em Up!

Column originially appeared in the JWeekly, written by Emma Silvers

 On the sixth floor of an office building in San Francisco’s Financial District, in a boardroom at the back of a bright, spacious office, Rabbi Noa Kushner is doing something most people don’t generally think of rabbis doing: asking for guidance.

“You talk, I’ll type,” a consultant from UpStart Bay Area says to her. “Looking ahead six months, what are your main goals?”

Kushner is the founding rabbi of The Kitchen, a 16-month-old group that describes itself as “one part indie Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice.” The rabbi has regular meetings at UpStart to talk about where her young organization is headed.

UpStart Bay Area bills itself as “a social venture, consulting firm, and incubator for innovative Jewish organizations and entrepreneurs” — and Kushner is far from the only one who uses its services.

1_frontSince 2006, she and a select group of other local entrepreneurial Jews — many of them young, all of them with innovative and often great ideas — have been chosen to link with UpStart and learn how to translate those ideas into action.

Each year, anywhere from two to six Jewish innovators are selected to be UpStarters for up to three years. Mostly they are people who have already made steps toward viable startup businesses.

For up-and-comers in the Bay Area’s Jewish community, it’s a little like being new in school and getting invited to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table: UpStarters receive guidance in a range of areas, including help with business plans, coaching on fundraising techniques, marketing, programming and more. But they also become part of an extended network whose members rely on one another for advice and resources long after their official training has ended.

The Kitchen has been receiving guidance from UpStart for about 15 months. The other current UpStarters are Urban Adamah, G-dcast, Moishe House, Kevah, Fair Trade Judaica, Ketuv, A Wider Bridge, Wilderness Torah and Edah — groups featured in j., which is no coincidence.

“These are organizations that share a vision of Jewish life, that are about curiosity, excitement, growth, meaning, purpose, value,” says CEO Toby Rubin, who founded what would become UpStart in 2006 under the auspices of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

A veteran of Jewish organizations, Rubin launched UpStart because she saw that established institutions in the Jewish community weren’t “harnessing the talent” of young people with fresh, creative ideas for Jewish living.

The sixth floor at 332 Pine St. — known to UpStarters as the “Innovation Center” — serves as headquarters for the 10 organizations that make up the current cohort, offering drop-in meeting space or desks for administrative work. It’s set up in a hub formation, with couches serving as a casual meeting space at the center of the main room, and small office spaces on all sides.

Outside the boardroom, a long table holds brochures and reading materials from the other organizations that currently make up the UpStart Bay Area family. An oversize whiteboard calendar serves as a colorful master schedule for each group’s meetings and events.

Their areas of programming are diverse — from outdoor education to Torah study to LGBT work to the arts — but each of these young Jewish organizations is going through a kind of adolescence, according to Rubin. “The idea is to take people and small organizations that are poised to have a significant impact and say ‘Here are the resources we know of that can be helpful to you,’” she says. “That should be something that’s available to everyone.’”

For Sarah Lefton, founder of G-dcast — a nonprofit production company dedicated to improving Jewish literacy using online, interactive storytelling — that support has given her immeasurable confidence in her own abilities as a leader.

“I was coming from a creative background, in the media world, and my weak spot was definitely the administrative side,” recalls Lefton, who had nearly a decade of filmmaking and creative marketing experience when she launched G-dcast in 2008. When schools and synagogues started inviting her to teach, Lefton would sometimes accept, but she was nervous about it. “I’d say ‘I’d love to, but just so you know, I’m not a Jewish educator,’ ” she says.

So when G-dcast became an UpStarter in 2009, she started booking time with Maya Bernstein, UpStart’s strategic design officer, who helped her see how she could present her work to different audiences. Three years later, Lefton says, “It’s gotten to the point where I feel ready to own that title [of Jewish educator], thanks in great part to the people I’ve worked with at UpStart.”

Julie Wolk, the founding co-director of Wilderness Torah — the Bay Area nonprofit that seeks to reconnect Jewish traditions to nature and sustainable living — says UpStart provided much-needed focus for her and co-founder Zelig Golden when the organization “adopted them” in 2009.

“We came in with the excitement and the energy,” she says. “We had a vision. We’d planned a few successful events. We knew we had an idea with legs. But UpStart helped us create an entire structure with an accounting system, a fundraising plan … they helped with some Jewish content, helped us get our name out in the community. ”

Even now, says Wolk, with her business needs changing as the organization grows, “I know I can just call up with any question and they’ll be there for us. It’s immensely helpful.” At the moment, she’s working with UpStart staff on “higher-level communications and branding work.”

For Sara Bamberger, the brains behind Kevah — a network of Jewish text study circles that’s been expanding steadily, from just two groups in 2008 to roughly 50 in 2012 — the benefits include much more than the consulting, fiscal support and help with programming.

“For one, there’s such moral support — the knowledge that there’s this wonderful team that believes in our vision. Especially at the beginning, when we were in the process of moving from Kevah being an idea to a reality, their confidence and enthusiasm was so helpful,” says Bamberger, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO.

But just as important as the support from UpStart’s small staff, adds Bamberger, is the dynamic among cohort members.

“It’s not unlike the experience of being an elementary school class where you’re with peers who are in the same developmental stage,” she says. “And that has been a really positive and exciting way to launch a new venture … especially since being an entrepreneur in the nonprofit world can be a pretty solitary existence.”

Kevah has partnered repeatedly with other groups from its UpStart cohort, such as Moishe House and

G-dcast, over the past few years. In June, for example,

G-dcast produced an animated video written and performed by Kevah’s first multigenerational study group, including participants ranging from 5 to 40 years old.

UpStart cohort members include (top, from left) Arthur Slepian of A Wider Bridge, Jordan Fruchtman of Moishe House, Sara Bamberger  of Kevah, Ilana Schatz of Fair Trade Judaica and Rena Dorph of Edah; seated are Adam Berman of Urban Adamah (left) and Zelig Golden  of Wilderness Torah.

UpStart cohort members include (top, from left) Arthur Slepian of A Wider Bridge, Jordan Fruchtman of Moishe House, Sara Bamberger of Kevah, Ilana Schatz of Fair Trade Judaica and Rena Dorph of Edah; seated are Adam Berman of Urban Adamah (left) and Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah.

“We’re excited to collaborate because we like each other, and trust each other,” Bamberger says. “Without UpStart, there’s no way we would have wound up knowing each other this well.”

Arthur Slepian, founder of A Wider Bridge — a nonprofit that aims to bridge the LGBT community in the Bay Area with that in Israel — says being an UpStarter has allowed him to learn from the experiences of other, similar nonprofits.

“We’re at a point in our development where our budget is limited, and we can’t really afford to bring on new staff, but we need resources,” he says. “Their staff is like having access to a field group of a wide variety of consultants, in education, development, planning. When they don’t have expertise in a certain area, they’ve introduced us to people who do, whether it’s accounting, legal, insurance, or marketing and social media.”

UpStart’s story began in 2004. While working at the Bureau of Jewish Education, Rubin was visited by a young woman named Abby Levine. Levine was looking for help with the JERICHO Project, her effort to involve Jews in a progressive agenda on immigration reform, but couldn’t find what she needed — financial support or startup networking services — from established Jewish institutions like the BJE. “She didn’t fit in anywhere,” Rubin says.

Rubin realized that if there weren’t resources for that kind of work, the Jewish nonprofit world was failing its next generation of innovators.

“I didn’t need to wait for a study to tell me young people weren’t showing up to take part in the old Jewish institutions,” she says.

Having new, creative ideas in the community could help get young people to show up, but the established Jewish world didn’t know how to “nurture young people’s ideas, or harness this talent and creativity,” Rubin recalls. “We weren’t set up for it.”

So she founded the Jewish Professionals Co-op, under the auspices of the BJE. Two years later, the network of services available to young Jewish startups split from the BJE and became UpStart. The organization now has a staff of six, a 12-member board and 10 advisers, including heavy hitters from the Bay Area’s Jewish community, such as Marc Dollinger, San Francisco State University’s Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility.

Another sure sign of UpStart’s success: Six years after its founding, established Jewish institutions see it as a worthy investment.

A new grant of $175,000 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation will help fund UpStart in the coming year — especially important as the organization just received the last of its funding from the soon-to-be-defunct Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, Rubin says.

“UpStart plays a vital role in supporting innovation,” says Jennifer Gorovitz, the federation’s CEO. “So of course we’re excited to partner with them in igniting the next generation of Jewish thought and Jewish life, and continuing to build the local ecosystem of organizations, both new and old. They’re engaging people in Jewish life in new ways.”

While the basic UpStart program is funded entirely by local dollars — including the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, as well as many individual Bay Area donors — new branches of the organization are growing quickly, and Rubin is determined to find ways to support them.

Though UpStart still offers services to up-and-coming organizations, demand for the staff’s resources and collective expertise has meant they’re putting more energy into delivering programming advice and business strategy sessions to other organizations — in the Bay Area and elsewhere.

Hazon, Keshet and Bend the Arc — national organizations with a presence in the Bay Area and strong ties to UpStart’s mission — are residents, meaning they use space at the office without actually being part of the UpStarter cohort.

And UpStart’s fee-based consulting work has increased steadily over the last two years: individuals, organizations and lay leaders can contact UpStart for a variety of training sessions, model programs or consulting work.

Another testament to the success of UpStart is its rate of expansion, due in large part to demand for its services from individuals and Jewish communities beyond the Bay Area.

UpStart has been hired by leaders in other Jewish communities to build replica UpStart programs there. One rabbi in Phoenix had it design a fellowship for her, and shape a grant program to support it.

“But what’s really booming for us are the more established organizations that want to learn entrepreneurial skills,” Rubin says. “Everyone’s got their different way of talking about innovation … we help them actually put it into practice.”

In the next year, a couple of big projects are on the horizon. The Walter and Elise Haas Fund is creating a learning community for executive directors of midsize nonprofits that, in Rubin’s words, “tend to get overlooked” — such as the S.F.-based Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and the Rohnert Park–based Jewish Community Free Clinic.

Their leaders will come together for training sessions in which UpStart staff will “help them look at the real problems that are blocking their big ideas,” Rubin says. The director of a Chicago-based organization for kids with special needs heard about the program and has plans to fly out to participate.

The other big project is a bicoastal collaboration with the Jewish Education Project in New York, designing a pilot professional development program with 10 New York–based Jewish day schools. The idea, Rubin says, is a program that can be applied anywhere, to any type of educational community.

Also on the docket for the next year: figuring out how to make rent.

UpStart’s lease is up in May 2013, and though Rubin says the agency currently is managing to squeak by on an annual budget of $400,000 — a combination of individual and foundation dollars that just barely supports operations, programming and staff — renegotiating the lease may add to the conundrum of how to grow as an organization while tightening an already tight belt.

But ultimately, Rubin says, UpStart looks toward the future, regardless of present hurdles.

“I know there are a lot of boards and professional organizations right now that are facing challenging situations, and it’s very painful,” she says. “But it’s awesome that there are so many people who are seeing the promise of new ideas and new perspectives. To me, that’s who we are as Jews.”


cover photo/cathleen maclearie


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From the JWeekly: Grant will help Kevah develop teachers

This article is originally from the JWeely.

Kevah, a 4-year-old Berkeley-based organization, has been awarded a $250,000 grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

The funds will support the inaugural year of the Kevah Teaching Fellowship, which will provide aspiring Jewish educators with professional development and training — including mentorships, workshops and curriculum development guidance. Fellows will be charged with teaching one or more Kevah groups.

Kevah’s mission is to build community and engage Jewish identity by helping people set up small, peer-based Jewish study groups in their homes and offices. The nonprofit has groups in the Bay Area and the Denver-Boulder, Colo., area.

For more information, including details on how to get involved in the teaching fellowship program, visit Ideal candidates for the program will have some experience with Jewish texts and at least basic Hebrew literacy.


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From the JWeely: Agency awards $100K to two local nonprofit heads

This article orignially appeared in the JWeekly

Founders of two local Jewish nonprofits will receive $100,000 over the next two years from the Joshua Venture Group.

They are among eight Jewish social entrepreneurs nationwide who have been named fellows in the latest cohort of the Joshua Venture Group’s 2012 Dual Investment program. Each fellow will receive $80,000 in funding for their organizations and more than $20,000 toward personalized coaching, training and networking.

The Bay Area recipients are Sara Heitler Bamberger of the Berkeley grassroots Jewish learning program Kevah; and Elana Naftalin-Kelman, also of Berkeley, for her organization Rosh Pina, which helps Jewish institutions become special-needs certified through a one-year program.

The Dual Investment program was launched in 2001. The Joshua Ventures Group’s mission is to identify emerging leaders in the Jewish community and support their visions for social change.


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