New Grants Recognize Young Jewish Innovators

A new grant-making partnership between the Natan Fund and ROI Community connects the former’s philanthropists directly with the latter’s global network of young Jewish innovators.

Robert Saferstein received a grant to expand his upscale Shabbat dinner experience for gay Jews in New York.

Robert Saferstein received a grant to expand his upscale Shabbat dinner experience for gay Jews in New York.

Written by Andrew Esenstein of Ha’Aretz on February 11, 2013

Two and a half years ago, Amy Beth Oppenheimer quit her consulting job in New York, sold her belongings and bought an RV. She has been crisscrossing the United States ever since, presenting an interactive program that she created called “Faces of Israel” at synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Hillels and summer camps − all without any institutional backing.

“I’m an independent educator, so I’ve been limited in terms of what communities I can bring the program to,” she said in a phone interview from her current home base in Austin, Texas. “While I’m all about passion, passion doesn’t pay the bills.”

As one of four recipients of the inaugural “Natan Grants for ROI Entrepreneurs,” which were announced last week, Oppenheimer said she can now share her passion for Israel with a larger audience.


Faces of Israel Director Amy Beth Oppenheimer

The new grant-making partnership between the Natan Fund and ROI Community grew out of a shared desire to connect the former’s philanthropists directly with the latter’s global network of young Jewish innovators, said No’a Gorlin, ROI’s director of strategy and leadership development. “There are many ROI’ers who have been applying for Natan grants,” Gorlin said. “This was a way for us to create a discreet fund that would only be available to ROI members.”

Felicia Herman, executive director of the Natan Fund, said in a statement: “Both Natan and ROI hope to strengthen and enhance each other’s work while collectively having an even greater impact on the Jewish world than each group could have on its own.”

A 2012 ROI Fellow and New Jersey native, Oppenheimer interviewed Israelis from all walks of life about hot button issues, such as marriage and conversion, for a research project while studying at the University of Haifa in 2007. After returning to the United States, she edited the footage into a documentary that she shows as part of her presentation, which aims to “get people thinking about what they want their connection to Israel to be.”

Oppenheimer, 27, said she plans to use her $12,000 Natan grant to bring “Faces of Israel” to remote communities that typically do not have access to programs about Israel. “I’m so excited to take the RV back on the road and energize these off-the-beaten-path communities,” she said.

Robert Saferstein, another 2012 ROI Fellow and grant recipient, moved to Manhattan from Akron, Ohio 12 years ago to pursue his passion for the arts, including writing and musical theater composing. He said he was surprised to discover that for all of the cultural and social offerings in New York, there was nothing exciting happening in the gay Jewish sphere.

So he organized the first gay-friendly Megillah reading and Purim party at the JCC in Manhattan. And last April he launched Friday Night Lights, an upscale Shabbat dinner experience for LGBTQ professionals. The first dinner, which featured cocktails and a five-course kosher meal, drew 80 people; the second maxed out at 100. The dinners are designed to help gay Jews “come to their Judaism at their own pace and in their own way,” he said.

“There are some individuals who have been left out in their struggle to reconcile both being gay and being Jewish,” he added. “For a variety of reasons, they might not have the most wonderful association with Jewish institutions or synagogues, and we are trying to welcome them back in.”

Saferstein, the 29-year-old online editor of the Jewish journal Sh’ma, said he will use his $4,000 grant to expand Friday Night Lights, which also raises money for charitable organizations that assist the LGBTQ community. The next dinner will be held in the late spring or early summer, he said.

The two other grantees are Fabian Schamis of Uruguay, who received $12,000 to build a Jewish school in the coastal city of Punta del Este, and Isidoro Hamui of Mexico, who received $9,000 to stage Merkaba Fest, the first-ever Jewish music festival in Mexico.

The winning projects were selected from a pool of 45 proposals submitted by ROI Fellows in 10 countries. Gorlin of ROI Community said the Natan grant committee members had initially earmarked $25,000 for the first batch of grants, but were so impressed with the quality of the proposals that they pledged an additional $12,000.