Conference energizes Bay Areas emerging social entrepreneurs

Do you know what the Jewish community is like in Mexico City? San Salvador? Johannesburg?

Isaac Zones does. So does Sarah Lefton, and so do a handful of other 20- and 30-something Jews in the Bay Area. They all traveled to Jerusalem this summer for a conference aimed at creating a long-lasting network of emerging Jewish leaders.

The 120 young adults came to Israel from 23 countries (including Israel) for the five-day conference named after the well-known business term ROI, or “return on investment.” It’s one of the first conferences looking specifically at the needs and ideas of young adult communities around the globe.

While ROI included conference staples like workshops, lectures, discussions and hands-on volunteer work, Bay Area participants said the most meaningful aspect of the conference was simply the opportunity to meet other young Jewish leaders.

“There’s something magical about bringing Jews in the diaspora to Israel, and Jerusalem in particular,” said Zones, who heads up the Moishe House, a quasi-community center for the 20-something set in San Francisco. “The best part about ROI, for me, was meeting and talking to people about what their life was like.”

Six people from the Bay Area attended ROI — Zones of Moishe House; Lefton, a leader in San Francisco’s Mission Minyan and creator of Jewish Fashion Conspiracy; Emily Freed, an organic farmer in Santa Cruz; Tomer Altman, creator of the blog Oy Bay; Gabe Salgado, a Jewish educator in the East Bay, and Rachel Neumann, who just left her job at an S.F.-based education nonprofit to get a graduate degree in public health at Columbia University.

“Last year, I was the only one” to attend the conference from the Bay Area, Lefton said. “For years, I would go to events like this and always feel like the only Jew in San Francisco. It felt wonderful to be heavily represented at ROI.”

The conference divided participants according to their interests, so they could connect with other Jews focused on similar initiatives in their locales. Lefton and Altman focused on “content delivery.” Zones, on the other hand, spent his time in the tikkun olam track. Meanwhile, Freed nestled into the environmental activism track.

Yoni Gordis, a longtime Jewish communal organizer who helped plan ROI, said he’s working to organize regional gatherings to continue the momentum started at ROI. The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which spent more than $500,000 for the participants to go to Israel, is planning to invest an additional $100,000 in small grants so participants can implement their ideas upon returning home.

“We believe these people are going to create viable and rich Jewish communities for the future,” Gordis said.

Before Freed got into farming and gardening, she worked at the now-defunct Joshua Venture, a fellowship for Jewish social entrepreneurs. Her current goal is to cross-pollinate her passion for Judaism with the environment. She wants to create an “intergenerational food movement” that puts sustainability, gardening and nutrition into a Jewish educational context.

“I’m really trying to build a community of Jewish environmentalists in Northern California,” she said. “If I can’t start local, then I’ll go international and bring it back local.”

Freed and other participants don’t yet know exactly what that looks like. But they predict it will be something good.

To read more about the conference and participants, visit

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.