New group of UpStarters spans a wide landscape

Bringing together entrepreneurs, educators and innovators, UpStart Bay Area is a nonprofit with a unique vision: a Jewish community that encourages new ideas the same way the tech industry does.

To that end, UpStart Bay Area each year selects a new cohort of innovative, young organizations that are breaking new ground in the Jewish community.


David Fox (left) of Amir works with Jewish campers in an organic garden.

This year, UpStart has granted financial support and resources to four very different groups: Amir, A Wider Bridge, Urban Adamah, and The Kitchen. Selected last week, each group will receive professional training and support in executive leadership, business development and program design.


Amir is a nonprofit devoted to environmental education for young people. Meaning “top of the tree” in Hebrew, Amir has developed an organic gardening curriculum for summer camps, and after a 2010 pilot program at Camp Ramah in Canada, Amir has expanded to four camps in the U.S. for the upcoming summer, including Camp Ramah California in Ojai.

“I grew up going to Jewish summer camps my whole life, so I really learned to value informal education — camp stuck with me as a powerful way of teaching,” said Director David Fox, who will move to the Bay Area this summer after completing a degree at Washington University in St. Louis. “My goal initially was to create the ultimate Jewish camp.”

Why gardening? “Environmental issues are a point of commonality — water issues, solar power: These are things that affect everyone, regardless of your race or religion,” Fox said. “We all depend on these resources, and if we overuse them, we’re hurting each other. I think it’s a great way to bring kids together, to learn how to find common solutions.”

A Wider Bridge is a 11⁄2-year-old organization that seeks to connect LGBT Jews across the United States with those in Israel. Organizers want to help gay Jews in the U.S. feel more connected to Israel, and, in doing so, strengthen the Jewish community as a whole by bringing more gay people into the fold.

“We work to bring the human face of LGBT Israel to the U.S.,” said Arthur Slepian, executive director of A Wider Bridge, which is based in San Francisco. “We’ve brought gay Israeli teens here, and last fall we brought LGBT Orthodox leaders from Israel to Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York to share stories of personal courage and inspiration.”


Rabbi Noa Kushner

A Wider Bridge will sponsor an LGBT mission to Israel in November in order to give more gay Jews a chance to experience the nation firsthand.


Slepian noted that the organization is the first UpStarter with a mission centering on engagement with Israel. “We’re extremely proud to be a part of UpStart,” he said. “It’s a great recognition of the work that we’re doing.”

Urban Adamah is a new residential leadership training program for young adults ages 20 to 29 that combines urban farming, social justice and progressive Jewish values. Based on an organic farm and educational center in Berkeley, 12 fellows will operate the farm while working at internships at local social justice organizations addressing environmental issues as well as poverty and food security.  The initial class of fellows will be selected next month.

By practicing sustainable agriculture and communal living, the program’s founders hold that fellows will be connecting to their Jewish roots.

“Judaism emerged as a religion at a time when everybody was a farmer,” Executive Director Adam Berman told the Daily Cal last fall. “It’s not a coincidence that the Jewish tradition is also built on these traditions.”

The farm also will be hosting day camp sessions for younger kids and teens through partnerships with existing Bay Area groups such as Edah, the JCC of the East Bay, Congregation Beth Israel and Camp Tawonga.

The Kitchen is the brainchild of Rabbi Noa Kushner, who led Jewish engagement programs for young adults at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael for six years. Her first project since moving on from that synagogue, The Kitchen is “one part indie Shabbat community, one part San Francisco experiment, and one part tool kit for DIY Jewish practice,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

“I’ve been a rabbi now for almost 13 years, and I just keep meeting more and more people who were basically asking for something like this,” Kushner said. “There are a lot of people out there who are not connected to Judaism in any formal way but are interested in exploring religious Jewish life, and we just started thinking ‘How do we reach these people?’ ”

With a cohort of about 14 people — whom Kushner refers to as the “Kitchen cabinet” — the nonprofit will be based out of the San Francisco Friends School in the Mission District. It will launch with a first Shabbat service June 10.

UpStart Bay Area was founded in 2006 by current CEO Toby Rubin, a former director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. This year’s cohort of four will join six current UpStarter groups, including rising Bay Area nonprofits such as Wilderness Torah and Fair Trade Judaica.

“The array of projects that comes our way reflects the growing interest in arts and culture, Jewish education and spirituality, as well as social justice, food justice — the list goes on,” Rubin said. “We’re very excited about these groups, and how well they’re positioned to mesh with the continuing UpStarters.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.