Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reflections On Israel

It has been a while since we were able to update the St. Lou Jew. Between the intensity of the last week in the PresenTense Institute, as well as the difficulty of trying to cram in time with everyone before I left Israel... well.. you get the picture. Readjusting and Re-acculturating always helps you to appreciate the differences between where you were and where you are. Read on for a few thoughts about Israel and what St. Louis can learn.

Israel has a way of changing people. The country makes secular people religious and vice versa. The problems are both mindblowingly complex and maddeningly simple. The culture can make you want to scream in frustration (that no two cab rides between the same points are ever the same price) and cry in appreciation. The smells, sights, sounds, and tastes are all more vivid, and everything is often in sharper focus. But can an experience in Israel change St. Louis?

After 6 weeks in Israel, learning how to write business plans, executive summaries, how to navigate public transportation, sharpening my Hebrew and soaking up the local culture, I have a few ideas about what the tiny nation-state can teach St. Louis.

1. Transportation
In Israel, you can get nearly any where without the need for a car. Sure, you are reliant on a network of buses, shared cabs, and trains which may not arrive on time, may not be clearly marked, or make much sense to the casual traveler, but once you master them, they are quite powerful and mostly convenient. St. Louis used to be the street car capital of the world, and while those days are long gone, the city has finally made some small strides in reinstating public transportation funding. The bigger issue is that most people in St. Louis view public transit as a people mover of last resort. We take for granted the relative affordability of cars and gasoline and look at the Metro and buses as less dignified or convenient way to get around. Because of the range of our cars we move further and further from the urban core, making public transit even less relevant. If young adults took the lead in starting to ride the bus around the city, more people would be convinced of the safety and convenience of this form of transit, it would go a long way towards reviving activity in the city. See, on public transportation, we are forced to interact with and acknowledge each other, something from which cars conveniently remove us. In a city like St. Louis, the most precious resources are the young creative people who will create jobs and opportunities, but without a density of these people, their talents will merely dissipate. The Jewish community can take a leadership role in championing expanded use of public transportation and can encourage community members to stop moving to the exurbs.

2. Hospitality
A few weekends ago, I stayed with two different families, each of whom implored me to feel at home. In Cincinnati I'm close with the parents of almost everyone of my good friends from growing up. In St. Louis, although I know a lot of people whose parents live in town, I have barely met (let alone know) anyone's parents, and rarely get to experience home hospitality. Granted, in Israel, I'm a visitor, and I'm fortunate to have a large network here, but the hospitality is unreal. I've been offered places to crash by people I've met once and invited to more dinners than I have time to attend. Hospitality isn't just a matter of meeting parents, though, it is also how you treat people, how you welcome them into your space, and make them feel at home.

If St. Louis wants to be a comfortable and welcoming place for Jewish young adults, people need to start making extraordinary efforts to make them feel comfortable and welcome. Did you just meet someone new? Invite them over for a meal with friends, introduce them to your crew, make them feel like St. Louis is a place they fit in. One of the primary purposes of the Next Dor house is to provide that home for people in St. Louis and to tap into that hospitality.

3. Innovation
Israel has more start ups per capita than any other place on earth. The country has fostered a sense that there are no barriers. St. Louis is known for a conservative culture that tends to smother new ideas. There is a certain way that things have been done and a certain order that people wish to maintain. In order to create the jobs that will bring people to St. Louis, and entice them to stay, that culture has to change. The easiest and lowest cost way to do this is to simply be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. If organizations can align their massive connections and resources behind innovative ideas and people, both the old and the new will win. St. Louis can also start community innovation funds (like PresenTense's CEP model, or giving circles) in which young adults with ideas are connected to resources like seed funding and advice from business professionals on how to launch their ventures. Individuals can share business connections and help people network and everyone should be helping to showcase young adults who are doing interesting things and make sure their ventures are supported.

4. Local fresh food
In Israel, you don't have to go to the shuk to find amazing produce. Not only can you find fruit stands everywhere, but even the supermarkets carry high quality local produce.

St. Louis has a number of farmer's markets, including Soulard and Tower Grove but what about putting pressure on Schnucks and Shop 'n Save to include local produce and other products in their selections? How many people are growing mint on their windowsills or tomatoes in their backyards? A people with roots in the land is a people on more firm ground.

5. Local solutions to local issues
Israel has no gas or precious metals, scant supplies of fresh water, and is surrounded by hostile neighbors. Due to this, Israel has always relied on its most valuable resource, the intellect and creativity of its citizens to come up with innovative solutions to its problems.

St. Louis has continued to squander its most important resource, its young people. The city has done little to attract or retain this talent and between larger market cities, and the suburbs, the City of St. Louis is getting its butt kicked. For St. Louis to succeed, and for the Jewish community to be viable and vibrant, it must look to its young adults and empower them to create the future.

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis has recognized many of these issues and is beginning to align resources around young adult programs like Next Dor and Moishe House, as well as to look to national and international models of Jewish social entrepreneurship. For these efforts to succeed, the Federation will need to not only put money into the issues, but also be willing to change their modus operandi in order to encourage young adult innovation and participation.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Kutiman Live in Tel Aviv

For those of you who haven't heard of Kutiman, he grew famous for remixing clips of individuals playing their instruments on YouTube and slicing them into full songs. Last week, I had the chance to see his band play as openers for DJ Shadow in Tel Aviv. Check out the 'Mother of all funk chords' Live... and excuse the camera movement from my uncontrollable dancing.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Drive By Weddings

Friday night in Jerusalem is a time of peace. The city shuts down, buses stop running, the decibel level decreases and a quiet descends on the streets. But sometimes, the quiet is uneasy, and is broken
Yesterday, we were going about our pre-Shabbat routine in Jerusalem. Knowing that the shuk would be shut down (as are most grocery stores), we stocked up on a few essentials. Once back from the heat of the Mediterranean sun, we cleaned up and got ready for our evening. I, along with several other fellows, and a friend from Wash U, had made plans to attend the Jerusalem Challenge, a bid to get together Jewish young adults from across the religious and national spectrum for a night of conversation and shared experience.

As my roommates and I sat in the common area of our apartment, we suddenly heard concussions, first one, then more, each louder and closer than before. Now, I haven't served in the army, but I certainly know what gunshots sound like. When my roommate Noah peered out the window and saw flashes, I told him and Madeline to get in the bomb shelter room and lock the door. We heard a few more booms and sat, breathless. I called the police and they asked if I was calling about the gunshots and that they were already looking into the matter.

As we moved back towards the windows and looked outside, everything seemed to be proceeding as normal. Just as the tension grew, there was a knock at our door.

After looking through the peephole, I found Dave, my Wash U friend, having finally made it after a long trek from the States.

We let him in and, as I introduced him to my visibly shaken roommates, asked him if he had heard the shots.

As it turned out, he had seen the whole thing transpire. There is a tradition at Arab weddings that guns are fired into the air in celebration. It just so happened that this particular wedding party thought it prudent to fire in the air while driving through the city, which might be marginally acceptable in the outskirts of Afghanistan, but is understandably upsetting in a place with a history of unrest and tension like Israel.

Our fears allayed, our breathing returned to normal, and Dave and I even managed to make it to the end of services at Kol Haneshama
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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Birthright Israel Brings Israel to St. Louisians

There's no place to meet Americans like in Israel. Particularly during the summer, the Birthright trips stampede through the country. I was able to catch up with Jason, a St. Louis native and participant of a recent Birthright trip to hear his thoughts mid trip. Check out what Jason had to say, and excuse his exhaustion, Birthright works you pretty hard.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Driving Electric Cars at Better Place

It isn't enough just to hear about electric cars. The proof, as it is said, is in the pudding, or in this case, driving the damn things. So here, in an exclusive video, is Manny Waks, founder of the Capital Jewish Forum, test driving the electric car at Better Place. Also, near the end, you we learn about their infrastructure and watch how quickly a battery change takes place.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Electric Cars, Laila Lavan, and Living it up in Israel

This was a huge, immense, anak week. We not only learned about how the world will be saved, I pulled my first all nighter since college, and had a family reunion of exceptional quality.

With the PresenTense crew, we visited a number of Venture Capital Firms in Tel Aviv, with a final stop at Better Place, Shai Agassi's bid to change the world through electric car infrastructure. We learned about the infrastructure, road in the cars, and were all thoroughly impressed. Beyond figuring out the infrastructure, what is so amazing about Better Place is that the cars will serve as mobile energy storage for the grid. What that means is that we can finally invest in renewable energy generation on a large scale because the cars will provide the means to store and harness the energy in an effective way.

The weekend started in earnest Saturday night with Laila lavan in Tel Aviv. Laila Lavan translates to white night, but means all-nighter because many of the museums and attractions are open late, there are concerts and performances up and down the boulevards and on the beaches, and there are people out everywhere until the sun comes up. We made it to Tel Aviv on the later side, it was probably close to 11 by the time we hit Rotchild, one of the main streets in Tel Aviv. Before we took in all the craziness, though, I had a nice reunion of sorts with Dor, a friend from my time in Israel as a student, and his brother. After catching up with a few St. Lou Jews including Michael and Noa, we made our way down the street, passing a wireless headphone rave, in which all of the dancers wore headphones so that only they could hear the music from the DJ, and a host of Elvis impersonators, before ending up at a concert of a Beatles cover band, which was fantastic. As we made our way South, we heard some funky music and happened upon a group of highschoolers getting down on the boulevard. We hung out there until they finished and caught up with Ariel, a friend from Wash U, and her boyfriend. We hung out drinking champagne on the street, people-watching and taking in the mayhem, before hopping over to a restaurant that made some of the best burgers I've ever had in Israel.

By the time we made it back to our crash pad, it was 6 am, and we had seen the sun rise over Tel Aviv.

Friday, we took our time recovering and I finally was able to see my friend's mom, who had been like an adopted mother to me while studying in Israel. I joined them for Shabbat dinner and was able to catch up with nearly the whole of the family.

Shabbat was spent mostly in Gan Hapa'amon (Liberty Bell) park in Jerusalem with a friend from Philly, although tonight, while watching more of the World Cup, we struck up a conversation with some Brazilian and Spanish kids who were doing their version of Birthright. They invited us out dancing afterwards and proved to us that Americans aren't the only ones who go crazy in Israel.
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