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Fellowship offers Jewish social entrepreneurs tools to pursue social justice

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Josh Altman, Chair of JCC PresenTense Chicago, with Courtney Sharpe, a fellow mentioned in the article.

There is no doubt about it— for decades we have seen a slide in Jewish engagement in America, particularly among young adults. Sociologist Steven M. Cohen remarks, "Fewer and fewer Jews see themselves as obligated to support the collective interests of the Jewish people, to feel attached to Israel, or even to relate personally to the very notion of the Jewish people at all." (eJewish Philanthropy, Nov 24, 2009). 

With these troubling trends in mind, the Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) has launched JCC PresenTense Chicago. It's an innovative program that resonates with young Jewish adults by offering an avenue for social justice activism, interpreted through a Jewish lens.  JCC PresenTense Chicago provides a 6-month fellowship to young Jewish social entrepreneurs who wish to develop their socially responsible ideas into sustainable businesses. 

Launched only nine months ago, JCC PresenTense Chicago accepted its first cohort of 12 fellows in December 2011. Each fellow has worked closely with at least one mentor and one coach— Jewish professionals who have volunteered their passion and expertise to provide guidance and support. 

The fellows are developing social ventures that focus on many different social problems, but they all share an idealistic mission and an urgent desire to make our imperfect world a better place:

• Jill Zenoff is co-founder of The Gan Project, which serves as a hub for urban agricultural activity for the Chicago Jewish community and is housed on land at Bernard Horwich JCC. She is launching L'Dor V'Dor, an alternative organic food system. She says, "The conventional food system is broken in every way and is in gross violation of the cornerstones of our Jewish faith."

• Menachem Cohen has served since 2003 as rabbi of Mitziut, an independent, non-denominational spiritual community in Rogers Park. Through his venture, he hopes to expand upon his work with Mitzuit, recognizing that many disenchanted young Jews will not seek connection inside the walls of synagogues. He wishes to find them where they are at— not necessarily with the purpose of bringing them to worship— but to provide them with Jewish-based spiritual guidance at the alternative places they enjoy, such as street festivals, funky dance parties, or drum circles.

JCC PresenTense Chicago fellows are not the only young Jewish adults who have benefited from the program. Their coaches and mentors also have been inspired and enriched by this experience. Jacob Forman is Courtney Sharpe's coach, whose venture, "Grandma's Kitchen," proposes to offer more nutritious alternatives to fast food in communities that have limited access to fresh produce.

Jacob comments, "I admire Courtney's courage to confront one of Chicago's most poignant problems. An estimated 384,000 Chicagoans live in food deserts. My coaching experience has taught me that seemingly insurmountable social problems can feel less daunting if we work on them together." 

Eric Davis, Jill Zenoff's mentor and founder of the "Global Citizen Experience," adds, "JCC PresenTense Chicago generates a flurry of relationships and economic opportunities. We [entrepreneurs] are successful because we have the will to endure."

If you are inspired by these voices, and the social good that JCC PresenTense Chicago aspires to accomplish, we invite you to attend Launch Night. At this event, the fellows will showcase their business ideas through pitches and booth exhibitions.

Josh Altman, Chair of JCC PresenTense Chicago, talks about what inspired him to volunteer his time, and his view of Launch Night. "Launch Night is about solutions posed by those among us who have dared to take a risk by bringing an idea to the table and testing it out," he said. "These 12 fellows are living the lesson taught by our Rabbis in Pirkei Avot: 'It is not necessary for you to finish the task of making the world a better place, but you most certainly are not free from making an effort.' It is incumbent upon us to support them, with our business know-how or our financial capabilities, so that their ideas do not die on Launch Night, but thrive to enrich our city and our world."

Launch Night will be held at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, on Tuesday, June 26 from 7 to 9:30pm. To register for free-admission tickets for Launch Night, go to www.jccpresentensechgo.eventbrite.com.

Sara Massarik works for JCC Chicago and is Program Coordinator for JCC PresenTense Chicago. Questions? Contact Sara Massarik at smassarik@gojcc.org.

The Jewish Community Center of Chicago (JCC) is a partner in serving our community and receives support from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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