Empowering Grassroots Innovation

Innovation, effectiveness and compassion are hallmarks of JDC's important work caring for Jews and others in need. As JDC enters its second century of work, it is at the vanguard of the movement to foster grassroots innovation - lending its experience and infrastructure to promising social innovators and supporting local leaders as they activate their visions and create lasting social change.

December 23, 2015

Innovation, effectiveness and compassion are hallmarks of JDC’s important work caring for Jews and others in need. As JDC enters its second century of work, it is at the vanguard of the movement to foster grassroots innovation – lending its experience and infrastructure to promising social innovators and supporting local leaders as they activate their visions and create lasting social change.

The following examples offer a taste of how JDC is empowering the next generation of leaders and fostering social innovation throughout the Jewish world.

Building a Culture of Leadership in the Former Soviet Union

Fostering young leadership is a JDC priority worldwide, one that is especially relevant in the former Soviet Union, where the first generation of Jews to grow up in the post-communist era is coming of age.

In this region, home to over 1 million Jews, native-born leaders are increasingly taking responsibility for developing their Jewish communities, exemplified by the recent groundswell of grassroots volunteer initiatives during the violence in Ukraine. JDC is offering these young visionaries a platform for expanding their leadership skills – complementing local leaders’ intimate knowledge of their communities with the wisdom of a global organization, and helping these trailblazers introduce and develop concepts – such as volunteerism, social activism, and the importance of developing networks – for which there were no antecedents during Soviet times. Below are two of JDC’s flagship programs.

JDC’s Young Jewish Leadership Program for emerging community talent offers young people between the ages of 18-28 an opportunity to hone their personal and professional skills through a series of seminars that teach community work, Jewish tradition, project planning, financial responsibility, public speaking, and more. Program participants create and implement community service projects – identifying local community needs, locating potential partners and fundraising opportunities, and developing cutting-edge initiatives that generate involvement in community life.

Since the inception of JDC’s Young Jewish Leadership Program in 2002, the program has spread to six former Soviet countries, graduating more than 500 young professional leaders to date. The program currently aims to graduate about 100 leaders each year.

More recently, the Active Jewish Teens program offers younger community members, ages 12-16, the chance to take an active role in Jewish life. The program trains motivated teens to serve as counselors at community events, provides informal Jewish educational activities, and offers opportunities for participants to create grassroots community projects by applying to a small grants fund.

In 2014, its first year of programming, Active Jewish Teens reached 1,121 members in 36 communities located across five countries of the former Soviet Union. In the future, JDC aims to expand the program from 14 to 28 active groups and to include an exchange of participants between cities and joint regional activities.

Investing in New Ideas in Europe

At a time of heightened concern in Europe, JDC’s engagement with Jewish communities takes on special importance. JDC sees its role as helping to build resilience and develop community capabilities.

One of JDC’s most exciting new projects in the region is the Mozaik HUB. The HUB is based in Hungary, which has the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe and has thus emerged as a regional leader. While Hungary’s capital of Budapest is experiencing an upsurge in grassroots innovation, there remains a lack of know-how and a great deal of untapped organizational and individual potential. JDC’s Mozaik HUB serves as an incubator for Jewish grassroots organizations and projects. Its goal is to nurture small organizations so that they move from start-ups to active agents of social change; to advance organizations toward increased impact and organizational know-how; and to invest in leaders who will be vital to the community’s future. The HUB offers select NGOs a physical space, which serves as both a base and a platform for interaction, while also providing logistical support and training for both these core members and a wider network of organizations and projects. JDC has created a small grants fund to help launch the best new ideas.

Since the HUB first opened its doors in May 2015, four NGOs have been invited as core members to move into the HUB’s physical space for a period of up to four years. Eight affiliated organizations and a larger circle of project leaders are invited to participate in HUB mentoring, trainings, strategic planning sessions, and networking. The HUB also plans forums and discussions to bring together community stakeholders and activists. The next years will be crucial in building the capacity of the network and, more broadly, enhancing the resilience of Hungary’s Jewish community.

Building Social Entrepreneurship in Israel

Israel is a start-up nation phenomenon – and has seen an explosion of activity, gaining a deserved reputation as the home of many of the most novel and successful new ideas today. Imagine if the same entrepreneurial energy that one finds in Tel Aviv could be directed toward solving Israel’s substantial social problems. While many venture funds invest in Israeli businesses, JDC uniquely offers the chance to nurture, fund, and scale social entrepreneurs whose input is crucial to Israel’s future.

The JDC-Israel Accelerator for Social Innovation provides a platform for promising Israeli social entrepreneurs, allowing them to develop innovative solutions to pressing social problems. In addition to offering a physical space where people from different backgrounds can interact and ideas can ferment, the Accelerator will offer JDC’s expert guidance and support in how to develop effective and transformative social initiatives and build government partnerships that can scale up the most successful efforts. During each cycle, JDC will assist 60-80 social entrepreneurship projects, including social businesses, by providing six months of mentoring and additional support services. After six months, the 20 most successful projects will join the Accelerator stage, receiving an additional six months of support and counseling. Of these 20, three to five of the most promising projects will be selected for national expansion, integrating them into JDC’s government partnerships.

For more information on getting involved in these programs and supporting JDC’s work, please contact or any member of JDC’s staff.

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