ROI 120: Tightrope Walkers, Half-Naked Trapeze, and the Future of the Jewish Community

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Heshy Fried, better known as Frum Satire, is one of 120 participants in the Schusterman Foundation’s initiative ROI 120, a conference of 120 of the top young Jewish minds in the world. In this daily roundup — his second — he’s going to tell us how it is, lay down the law, and let us in on the secrets of the Jews that control the world — or, at least, the Jews of tomorrow who will control the world of tomorrow.

roiI couldn’t sleep last night. It may have been the excitement, or maybe it was the fact that my roommate took the good bed and I had the couch. I don’t mind couches much, especially ones with big flatscreen TVs facing them and nice comforters that stay cold in summer, but there was this flashing smoke detector light giving me fuzzy green visions every time I was about to fall into a blissful sleep.

All of this was on my mind as I struggled to arise and hang up the automatic wakeup call that was incoming at 7 A.M. Breakfast wasn’t until 8 anyway, and they hadn’t announced that there would be minyan — which I was disappointed about. It seemed to me and one other person that Jewish events of this sort focus on Jewy things but leave God or concepts of God out of the picture – and really, what’s a Jewish event without random breakaway minyanim in the middle of lunch?

I slept until 7:40 and then peeled myself off the couch, donned tefillin, spoke to the Lord like a deranged drunkard and hobbled off to breakfast. Today we didn’t have to dress in business casual, because we were doing an outdoor “activity.” So what was that, like a singles event kind of thing? I was curious.

Breakfast was complete overkill. Even as a food lover and official pig at formal and non-formal food eating events, I couldn’t take in what lay before me. First of all there were a bunch of Asian businessmen, but Asian businessmen aside there was a long table with really pimp looking deserts and this colorful array of salads and fruits and veggies, cheeses were lined up like soldiers and smoked fishes, caviar and baskets of bread. Granola with fruit and yogurt, and one of those chefs with the really tall hats making eggs to order, next to the egg station was a mini-IHOP situation with waffles, pancakes and French toast, complete with sugar-filled artificial maple syrup. Do maple trees even grow in the Middle East?

The dining room situation was set up well as another chance to network. You had to sit down, and I, being the loner I am, would sit alone and wait to see who would sit down, you really couldn’t lose, either it was someone who you had met already that found you interesting, someone really cute or someone completely random whom you would pitch your idea to with a red onion sticking out of your mouth while you tried not to drool your fake orange juice all over your name tag. Talking with your mouth full is one thing; networking with your mouth full is a completely different ball game.

After breakfast, I hobbled out of the dining room once again, this time from overstuffing myself rather then from lack of sleep. The one problem I began to foresee was that this hotel’s kitchen staff was very intolerant of people who don’t eat cilantro as every single thing was made out of it or used it as a garnish.

We went to this conference room to talk about what we would be doing for the day and to remind us to drink a lot of water, so that the health insurance they provided us would not have to be used in the case of fainting ROIers.

We then got bracelets, I an orange one, and we went outside to play a bunch of networking games. I flocked immediately to the shade of a big tree as we learned what stupid games we would play. The games were stupid, but they actually facilitated networking. One game we played was a sort of tag game. I would spin around three times and my partner would run away, but in catching her I could only walk with my feet touching one another like someone would do to measure something.

There was a lot of coeducational touching, and I wondered if anyone felt uncomfortable with that, they did acknowledge that issue — but I wondered if this would be similar to shaking a member of the opposite sexes hand for business purposes, even though this was a little more than just hand shaking, this fell into the lines of non-sexual hand-holding. A bit taboo, if you ask me.

We then all ran around in circles and laughed quite a bit doing it. I was completely spaced out at this point. Then it was time to form groups of similar colors and sit on the grass and play another game of which I completely forgot, it wasn’t too important. The real important stuff came when it was time for pitching our projects and what we were doing at ROI to people in our track.

I am part of the New Media track. We all stood in a circle with Jason Schwirtz, the facilitator of our track, and we each got 90 seconds to pitch our idea. Prior to coming to the event I had not rehearsed anything, and some of the people sounded as if they practiced in front of mirror 50 times as to what exactly they would say. I kind of flowed with it like I normally do.

Fact is, until last night, I had no idea what I was here for. I run a big blog, but is that reason enough to be a young Jewish innovator? My general overture is that I trying to open dialogue between the secular and religious Jewish communities through writing comedy and humor about the community and its issues.

After learning about the many projects in the New Media track, including one person who builds social networking communities, another who is trying to create the biggest culture event in Israel and another who works in the wine and food communities, we switched it up a bit. We all went according to our bracelet colors to pitch to and listen to other pitches from people in different tracks, like Tikun Olam, Jewish Education and Environmentalism. I heard about a project to modernize old Yiddish music in Germany with electronic music, and of someone who is trying to promote Zionism via Israeli cinema, which he says is dominated by left wingers and someone else who is involved in trying to get Israel into trash separation and recycling through a project he has started in Ashkelon. To say fascinating would be an understatement — it was amazing to finally understand what the whole ROI thing was about.

It was also good for me because I have a very short attention span, so 90 seconds per person was great. We then played team building games like hitting a beach ball without letting it touch the ground, building a chain of people whose hands and feet were all touching, then standing up by helping each other to the ground. It kind of felt like summer camp, except it was way hotter.

We then had a challenge in which we were supposed to tie a knot on a long rope without one part touching the other, impossible to explain on paper really, but me and two other guys were just pissed because we were hungry and these people thought they had a chance to complete the challenge. Team work sucks when it eats into your lunch hour. Maybe I am too much of a cynic for ROI type of events.

Lunch was too much too fast. I did notice it was mostly left overs from last nights dinner, with some new cilantro intensive salads, and tilapia instead of salmon and a gluten-free noodle option. Gluten-free and noodle just doesn’t sound like it should exist. Pick on energy bars, but don’t try and take down the noodle establishment eh!

After lunch we got into track meetings with all of our track members in conference rooms, it finally felt like a hotel near an airport except this conversation was engaging and well worth it. We made shorter pitches and then wrote down what we hoped to gain out of this conference. My answer of funding was one of those things we hoped not to gain, sure, yeh right! But things we all agreed we hoped would happen were the basics of collaboration, networking, idea generation and general strategy building. New media people also wanted to be in on the latest and it seems that this is the largest group of people I have ever met that loves Twitter, I didn’t feel like such a nonconformist with my slowly-growing Twitter account.

The main topic that interested me in the discussion was that of trying to get people off of social networks to come visit your website or visa versa. I have the problem that I have several thousand Facebook friends, but half that in hits since most people read a post and comment on Facebook itself. This hinders discussion because its not in a safe environment since people can see your name so people refrain from real true discussion. On the other hand its merely an extension of your site, so Facebook is like a new way to generate discussion and I never really thought of it like that before.

Another interesting activity was that we had to write down on three post it cards what events, Jewish and non-Jewish, we thought influenced us personally. I wrote: the Obama election, the founding of Birthright, and Richard Pryor, the last one was just meant to spark a discussion on how non-political correctness is funny. I aim to offend much of the time and really look up to Richard Pryor for that reason.

Then it was break and I found out I was to give a peer session about blogging and blog marketing which 6 people signed up for. The title of my session should have been shameless self-promotion, and how to really use Facebook and Twitter to your advantage, not just telling people when you are going to the bathroom and how to do basic search-engine optimization, all of which I discussed with a group of seven people who were at very basic knowledge levels. I feel my Facebook knowledge could have gone a long way, especially since I had my account deleted and know what information stays online and gets taken down.

I spoke of spam, keyword generation and figuring out rankings, basic SEO, WordPress vs. Blogger, how to make a little money and generally how to get your blog noticed, I touched on Adwords and how to know if your keywords are highly targeted. It was a lot of fun and four of the 7 were highly engaged and asked me to go into it further tomorrow. I think that most of the people at ROI think they know what they are doing with their blogs but really have no idea, well their loss.

We had a half-hour break. I wish we could have longer breaks; by the time you dodge crazy Israeli drivers and figure out where your room is, you have to be back downstairs. This time we had to don our business-casual attire. Mine was all wrinkled and definitely more like third-world country business attire, but Israel is chill like that.

Then for the first time we left the hotel, we boarded buses to some event, of which I had no expectations. Maital Guttman, an Israeli-born, American-raised documentarian, sat next to me and we got to chatting. She is working on promoting her film on one soldier’s journey in the Israeli army. She has shown it to 40,000 people so far across the world at campuses, film festivals, synagogues and more, but she can’t seem to sell the DVD.

I spoke to her about basic internet marketing strategy, through blogger DVD reviews, blog advertising, marketing through Facebook clubs and fan pages and search engine traffic via keyword placement on her own site. She even said she would give me a copy to review.

We arrived at a circus tent that featured a half-naked woman swirling fire. I wondered how my friends from the feminism conversation the previous day felt about the exploitation of this woman? There was also a popcorn machine, cotton candy and a pretty impressive semi-Israeli spread of food. I say semi-Israeli, because they had poor tasting falafel, very good pita, kabob and a salad table, this time with no cilantro.

With everyone dressed up, sipping wine and sitting on classy white couches in the middle of this field with the circus tent as a backdrop, I felt like a real businessman. I felt kind of pimp actually, albeit very tired. Then suddenly, some new age music started and another two beautiful girls in skintight outfits started doing some amazing acrobatic techniques on a podium with fake smoke coming out of it.

They did some amazing stuff, but I wondered how the more religious people in the crowd felt about this spectacle. Surely, ROI caters to some people’s needs, but does that toleration stop at the needs of religious people?

We were then told to enter the tent where a man balanced on a tight rope, and a woman waved her arms and danced in circles. This went on for about 20 minutes and then a series of speeches began, including remarks from Lynn Schusterman — who funds the whole ROI community — and Giddy Mark, the CEO of Taglit-Birthright.

At this point I was falling asleep, the speeches ended and a small show began. Our dear tightrope walker began juggling and throwing the bowling pins to another tightrope walker. Then the classic unicycle tight roper began. It was quite cool, even though my cynical self was on the lookout for wires holding them up, which I had convinced myself actually existed.

After this came the keynote speaker, Yael Arad, who was the first-ever Israeli to receive an Olympic medal. She won the silver medal in judo at the 1992 Olympic Games, and is very involved in teamwork, goals and coaching business owners. As mentioned before, I was tired, and the photographers probably caught me on camera dozing every now and then.

Her speech was good, but 30 minutes was the point in which people without ADD started zoning out. People started chatting, walking out or text messaging. The speech went too long and by the end, I was feeling ill. The speech ended and some funky music came on and everyone, including Lynn Schusterman, started grooving to Michael Jackson, The Spin Doctors (I kid you not) and Rick James.

Then we all left for another round of food. I was beginning to dislike food, which is very hard for me, but they seemed to be fattening us up so they could kill us. There was a pancake station complete with an array of sugar toppings like sprinkles, artificial maple syrup and chocolate.

I decided to be a party pooper and fell asleep on a couch, only to be woken up by someone who asked me for a few statements about the convention that would appear in an Israeli newspaper.

After this episode, after which I kind of complained about the lack of God and Jewishness at the conference, I started talking to Lindsay Litowitz, who is the ROI community coordinator. We spoke of my blog and what I wished to do, and she told me about some cool stuff, actually besides for a tip on finding out more about Limmud, Livnot and PresenTense fellowships, I haven’t learned much before our conversations as to where I could take my project. She told me about the salon concept, which an academic friend told me about a while ago but I didn’t think the Salon concept was alive and well.

She told me that I should get together a bunch of different Jews, have some booze and facilitate discussion about controversial issues that aren’t frequently talked about between different Jewish communities, she even mentioned funding available. She also mentioned that Birthright Alum have access to funding for collaborative Shabbos meals, at which I could apply a similar concept, all very exciting and interesting, although I would have to weed out the smart readers of my blog I could invite to engage with each other. We then spoke about the state and ignorance of Orthodoxy, as well as the beauty of the community.

We finally got back home, at which point I couldn’t just retire and had to jot some thoughts of the day down — from the networking games in the morning, track sessions, overload of food, pitching our proposals to the ridiculously long speech by a former Olympian. I was dead tired and planned on skipping some of the morning sessions as I drifted off to sleep, completely oblivious to the smoke detector and its flashing green lights.

Posted on June 30, 2009

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