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Innovation: it's not just a figment of my imagination

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Stefanie Pervos Bregman photo

Recently, while on a girls' trip to Orlando with my mom and sister, we pulled out the vintage 1998 Disney World park passes that in true Disney fashion, magically still had two days left on them. So we put on our mouse ears and ventured back in time to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

When I was a kid, we visited Disney often, sometimes twice a year. My favorite ride, oddly enough, was always Figment—you know, the little purple dinosaur, dragon guy who sang about imagination? Apparently, I used to make my family ride it again and again and again and I still have my Figment doll proudly displayed in my childhood bedroom.

So it was no surprise when this grown up, married woman dragged her protesting mom and sister onto the Figment ride. I'm not going to lie, this time around I found the ride just a little bit creepy. But as cheesy as it is, the message of Figment's song, "Just One Spark," stuck with me:

Imagination, imagination.
A dream, can be a dream come true.
With just that spark, in me and you.

Hey, I turned to my mom, as the train moved slowly through the ride's neon scenery; maybe this is the reason I decided to work in a creative field.

I was reminded again of Figment Tuesday night when I attended Launch Night for the 2012 JCC PresenTense Chicago Fellowship. On the cover of the evening's program, it reads "it starts with an idea." The program offers a competitive six-month fellowship for young social innovators who want to develop their socially responsible ideas into sustainable businesses. It aims to "engage young Jewish adults in Chicago around a communal goal and provide them with an avenue to mend the world through social entrepreneurship."

Each of the 12 fellows had that one idea, that one spark, which they hope will better our Jewish community and presented a pitch to those of us in the audience that night. Many of the ideas focused around food and others around Israel education, music and community. The presentations were incredibly thoughtful and insightful, but what struck me the most was the energy in the room, which by the way, was overflowing with people. While there were some familiar faces, it was refreshing to see so many people who were new to me and so passionate about Jewish life in Chicago.

I've often heard people say that innovation happens on the coasts and that the Midwest is more staid and traditional. I've heard this specifically in reference to Jewish communal life, that people take more risks on the East Coast or in California, than they do here in Chicago and other Midwest cities. I think to some extent it's true, and just the nature of each region's demographic. But innovation is taking place right here in Chicago's Jewish community—the spirit of last night's event confirmed what I already knew.

Innovation is happening in the minds of these fellows and the fellows to come. And innovation is happening here, at JUF. Like other Jewish Federations and Jewish institutions throughout the country, JUF is considered by many to be old school and traditional. And we are old school, in that we are an incredibly successful organization that sticks with what works. But what many people don't see is that we are also an organization on the cutting edge of innovation. YLD's Big Event, our Israel Education Center, our Joyfully Jewish programming for young families, Oy!Chicago, VOICES: The teen giving circle…I could go on.

This is the kind of stuff that motivates me, that gets me excited as a young Jewish professional, about the future of our community. The energy is there, and the potential is great. From here we need to harness that energy, let it flourish and grow and watch what happens.

We should all take a nod from PresenTense and fashion ourselves social innovators. I've loved the term since I first heard it. It makes me think of Figment, of someone who uses their creativity to make the world a better place. It's what I want to be when I grow up. Hopefully, I'm already on my way.

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