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The UpStart Story

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UpStart Bay Area was born from a question.


It came about one sunny afternoon in late 2004 as Toby Rubin, then working at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education, met with a woman named Abby Levine.  Young, energetic, and inspired, Abby had come to the BJE looking for help with “The JERICHO Project,” her effort to involve Jews in a progressive agenda on immigration reform. Socially conscious, innovative and quickly gaining momentum with young Jewish adults, it was just the sort of thing that the Jewish Community should be supporting.  Yet Abby had found no one who could help and was in over her head.  There was no structure within the Jewish community that offered the support, training and guidance she wanted and needed – the JERICHO Project did not fit into any of their boxes, so established institutions had no idea what to do with it.   And as Toby listened to Abby’s story, she asked herself how on earth the Jewish community would be relevant to young Jews if it could not be present for Abby and others like her.

As a long-time thought leader in the Bay Area Jewish Community, Toby went to work.  She applied for and received a grant from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, to explore whether there were others like Abby, what they had done, what they wanted to do, and what would they need to succeed.  She found that there were many more like Abby – young Jews who had innovative, game-changing ideas and plenty of initiative, but who felt isolated and in need of increased knowledge, skills and financial resources to lift their fledgling organizations off the ground. But how could they be helped?

Something was missing, and Toby now realized what it was.  Since its beginning, the Jewish Community had been sustained by a balance of two great forces – tradition and innovation.  While tradition may be what keeps the fiddler from falling off the roof, it is the spirit of innovation that keeps the tune alive. Although that sense of innovation was strong in so many young people, Toby realized that here, in the otherwise progressive Bay Area Jewish Community, that spirit was not being nurtured outside the established Jewish community nor, in fact, within many of the established institutions.  And without cultivation, this generation would see their Jewish identity fade away.   It had come time for the Jewish Community to do, once again, exactly what it had always done – innovate. 

So it was that in June of 2006, Toby launched what was then known as The Jewish Professionals Co-op.   With the support of the BJE and a founding grant from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, Toby brought in experienced educators and consultants Maya Bernstein and Barbara Reiss to identify and train the leaders of fifteen innovative Jewish organizations. Some needed strategic help. Others lacked operational know-how. But each was given the attention, support and skilled expertise they so badly needed.

Infused with the entrepreneurial mindset the Jewish establishment had been lacking, most of these organizations thrived. Within two years the Co-op saw its future in being independent of the BJE and, in July of 2008, with a major grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the project launched itself as “UpStart Bay Area.” 

Like the Jewish startups UpStart supports, its growth has been rapid, and with that growth its vision has evolved.  Its first priority was to cultivate the innovative Jewish ideas of social entrepreneurs working outside the established community. This activity is ongoing, with highly-select emerging organizations undergoing extensive coaching, training and guidance.

Yet even as UpStart focused on the needs of its UpStarters, it found itself responding to regular requests for information, guidance and training from professionals working in the established community. They wanted help with their efforts to innovate, too! Professionals and lay leaders of established Jewish organizations throughout the Bay Area were now beginning to ask themselves the same questions Toby had asked, trying to figure out how they could make themselves relevant to the next generation. Always one to innovate, UpStart launched its consulting services to meet a rapidly growing demand.

Even as more organizations began to turn to UpStart Bay Area as the expert on innovation, Toby realized that her team had to move past being a hub of the spokes for innovation: this wasn’t what the Jewish Community needed.  With tremendous human resources within the community, UpStart Bay Area realized that Jewish innovation would only be sustained across the community and beyond if people and ideas from widely varying perspectives were networked around entrepreneurial methods, philosophies, and experiences. UpStart Bay Area has grown into being the connecting force that brings others together, sharing information and inspiration with those at all levels of interest. So began the connect program, offering public presentations, workshops and classes to a wide array of participants.

Today, communities far beyond the Bay Area are asking themselves the same questions that Toby had posed back in 2004.  How could they reach the next generation?  And how could they cultivate their own UpStarts?  How can our Jewish community benefit from the UpStart experience to achieve the dynamic qualities needed to be a successful 21st century organization? Though each community has it’s own culture and it’s own consulting needs, they parallel those that Toby first recognized. So begins the next phase of the organization, as UpStart Bay Area draws upon what it has learned, breathing life into the spirit of innovation that will revitalize Judaism around the country.