How Improv Helped Me Manage My Jewish Anxiety

We Jews have been thought of as an anxious people, by ourselves and by others. In my case, baseline Jewish anxiety is compounded by the fact that I work at a brand-new start-up, compounded once again by the fact that it’s a Jewish start-up. Building something from the ground up requires experimentation, iteration, and failure. As a Type A Millenial, failure isn’t something I relish, or something I’m very good at processing. My deepest fears all center around public failure—this characteristic, when combined with an inherently risky endeavor like starting a new organization, was a recipe for white-knuckling it through my organization’s first (and pretty successful!) year of existence. As my colleagues can tell you, for much of our first year I was wound tighter than than a two dollar watch.

Rachel at iO

Enter the 5 day Improv Intensive at Chicago’s famous Improv Olympic (iO), where comedy legends like Mike Myers, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert and   (it seems) everyone important in comedy honed their long-form improv skills.   After reading about the benefits of improv in the workplace, a colleague and I were interested in dipping our toes into the improv world. Our executive director gamely gave us the go-ahead to enroll in the intensive, which met for six hours a day for five days straight. And because I’m a Type A, overachieving Millenial, I also bought and read the Improv Bible “Truth in Comedy,” written by iO’s founder, Charna Halpern.

It turns out that improv isn’t about being funny. Laughs happen, but they’re really a byproduct of “terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally,” as Halpern writes. The skills of improvisation are actually about listening and communication, building on the ideas of others and creating a group mind, being adaptive and flexible, and most importantly, GETTING OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD.

I know of no better definition for my particular brand of anxiety than being trapped in your own head, held hostage by a devious brain unspooling all sorts of worst-case scenarios. Improvisation demands that you stay anchored in the present and in what’s going on around you, rather than re-living the past or agonizing over the future. As Halpern explains, “An actor following each moment through to the next is constantly making discoveries…if he is planning ahead and thinking about the direction he wants the action to go, then he isn’t paying attention to what is going on in the moment.”

So, I failed plenty during improv. Plenty! Just ask my classmates At the start, I was so busy desperately searching for a clever line that I felt paralyzed on stage. It was terrifying, and a little embarrassing, and I’m sure it was hard to watch. But as the week went on, I learned to shrug off my failures, to dust myself off and get back on stage. To my surprise, the first time I got a laugh wasn’t when I was trying to be funny, but when I was responding authentically to what somebody else was doing on the stage. I learned that I could succeed just by being myself and making observations, because, as Halpern writes,  “The truth is funny.” Relaxing my control freak tendencies, getting out of my own head, and responding authentically without searching for the “perfect” answer allowed me to be successful in the context of improv.

Improv Class at iO

I have every reason to believe that cultivating these skills will also help me in my work; I’ll be a more collaborative colleague, a more creative and innovative thinker, and a more resilient person. What’s more, I have come to believe that the skills of improv are exactly the kinds of generative skills that Jewish communities can use to maintain the dynamism of our inherently creative tradition. Improvising doesn’t mean messily making things up, willy-nilly. One of the major principles of improv is “finding the game”—i.e., figuring out the pattern or “rule” of the game your scene partners are playing, and then using those constraints to create something new. Rules help us to focus our creative process and actually free us up to improvise. As you may know, there are no shortage of “rules” or patterns of behavior in Jewish tradition, which to my mind makes Jewish life ripe for a good dose of improvisation.

Most people would say that neurosis is the hallmark of Jewish comedy. As I’ve since learned since taking my class at the iO, several of the most important figures in improv’s development—Halpern, Ed Asner, Bernie Sahlins—were Jewish, which leads me to wonder if improv emerged, in part, as a response to dealing with Jewish anxiety, and whether it is improv and not neurosis that is the real Jewish art form. Perhaps that’s a topic for another time.

I’m considering signing up for more classes in the fall. After all, it’s cheaper than getting an analyst.

The author of this piece, Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago, a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future. Her piece was originally posted here. Rachel recently participated in the NEXTwork convening in Chicago.


All Work and No Play is Not the NEXT Way

Chicago Summers are the things of dreams (maybe because Winters can be nightmares), and it most certainly behooves you to take advantage of your time in the Windy City.

Whether you decided to come into Chicago for the full weekend leading up to the Convening, or you live just up the street, here is a taste of some of the Festivals taking place over the 10th and 11th. Get the full listing here.

Photograph: Steven A. Reynolds Photography,

Photograph: Steven A. Reynolds Photography,

9-11: Ginza Festival | Old Town
10-11: Retro on Roscoe | Roscoe Village
10-11: Northalsted Market Days | Boystown

Our entire convening is taking place in the hip West Loop neighborhood of Chicago, now home to many of the best restaurants in the city (and thereby, the country).

For locals, if you have not yet been able to explore the West Loop, we are giving you the perfect excuse.
For those of you joining us from out of town, be sure to plan a little time to explore and enjoy all the West Loop has to offer.

Check out this great neighborhood guide to help all of you navigate your adventure.

Yoni’s recommendation: If you are a coffee connoisseur, head to La Colombe for their cold pressed iced coffee.

Enjoy perusing online, we know your will enjoy exploring once your are here.

The registration deadline is THIS Thursday, August 1.
Register Here

Who are the people in your NEXT-borhood?

Conferences are important places to hear new ideas, be exposed to important skills, and often most memorably, to meet other interesting people.  With that in mind, we’ll be featuring some of our registered participants in order to help you get to know a little more about them before we meet up in Chicago on the 11th.

That brings us to Bradley Machov:

Bradley was born and raised in Minneapolis, went to college in New York City, and then moved back to Minneapolis after graduation. He had dreams of being a writer, so his dad connected him with a Jewish blog in the Twin Cities that happened to be looking for more writers. Bradley started writing for TC Jewfolk in late 2010 and became the editor in October 2012 once they had raised enough funds to hire the position.

TC Jewfolk is a multi-author blog, publishing original content just about daily that is relevant and interesting to young Twin Cities Jews. In addition to the articles, we have a community calendar, a Jewish jobs board, and a strong social media presence. TC Jewfolk is a subset of Jewfolk Media Inc., a registered non-profit, whose goal is to bring the TCJ model to other Jewish communities in the US and hopefully create a national network of hyper-local online opportunities for Jews to connect to their local communities.d connected me with a Jewish blog in the Twin Cities looking for more writers. Bradley started writing for TC Jewfolk in late 2010 and became the editor in October 2012 once they had raised enough funds to hire the position.

TC Jewfolk
Bradley is always happy to talk more about TCJ, and is also a really big baseball fan, and into improv comedy. He is very active with HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. He’ll probably be hitting up a show at iO or Second City while in Chicago, so if improv is your thing, be sure to connect with Bradley.Want to connect but havn’t registered? Get it done here. Remember, registration ends August 1.

Is Your Brand Harmonious?

“Your brand is not what you say you are; it’s what your customers think you are,” says Steve Yastrow in his book ‘Brand Harmony’. 


Photo credit: Angi Krueger w/ Core Creative

When you run a campaign, be it email, promotional or other, throw an event, or even create a post on Facebook, you are putting your organization’s brand forward. As marketers we have an idea of how we want our brand received by our constituents, but is that truly the way they receive/perceive it?

When we decided, based on a lot of feedback from prior convenings, that branding and communication needed to be part of our masterclasses, Steve Yastrow was a natural choice.  As a brand consultant for our partners at ROI, Steve has worked intensively with young Jewish leaders.  You’ll love his balance of wisdom and informality, serious content, and approachability.


Sign up for Steve’s Branding and Communications masterclass if you would like to better understand how to bring your “customers”’ (constituents’) brand perceptions into harmony with your organization’s intended brand.  Check out a taste of  the masterclass sessions below.

  • Improvise! The Key to Ditching the Pitch
  • Brand Harmony: Bringing Your Future Forward
  • Brand Harmony: Developing Your Brand Story
  • Brand Harmony: Communicating your Brand Story

We look forward to you joining us (and Steve) August 11 & 12!

Learn more about Steve Yastrow:
SteveYastrowSteve Yastrow’s passion is creating revolutionary marketing systems that yield major profit breakthroughs. Steve has been called a thought leader, marketing guru, provocateur and business visionary. As an international speaker and consultant, Steve Yastrow has helped many companies, from the Fortune 500 level to smaller, owner-managed businesses (like McDonald’s Corporation, The Tom Peters Company, Discover Financial Services, Kimpton Hotels, the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Agilent Technologies, Jenny Craig International, Great Clips for Hair, Cold Stone Creamery, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts to name a few).

Be an Upstart!

Our “Develop Yourself and Your Network” Convening is based in our belief that if we invest in you; your work with Birthright alumni and their peers will benefit. In deciding how to maximize this investment, we’ve sought the best. That’s why we are proud to be joined in our efforts by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network.  For years, many of the innovative and impactful initiatives in the Jewish world have received crucial support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. This network of innovative thinkers, activists, and leaders continues to grow, and we’re delighted to be able to invite those participants to join us.

Toby Rubin, UpStart Founder

Toby Rubin, UpStart CEO & Founder

But it isn’t merely the participants who will be impressive.  Our masterclass facilitators are top professionals in their fields.

Toby Rubin, founder and CEO of Upstart, will be bringing her unique background in organizational change as she leads a masterclass for senior professionals and those with big aspirations.  Upstart is dedicated to advancing innovative ideas for Jewish life through: incubating projects of Jewish social entrepreneurs; consulting to established organizations looking to change; and building a network that connects change makers to ideas, resources and each other to further construction of 21st century Jewish life.

UpStart logoToby’s track will cover ‘Leading without Authority’, ‘Getting onto the Balcony’, and how to apply these ideas.

If you are interested in increasing confidence in your ability to bring innovation and/or change into your workplace, then this is the session for you. Select the Organizational Change track when you register.




Room to Think

In designing our upcoming convening, we wanted to ensure we had a space that reflects our hopes and values for the time we’ll share together: open-mindedness, creativity, excitement, and interaction.

We know of no better space for these values to come together than Catalyst Ranch, where bright colors meet open floor designs, eclectic furnishings, and unique space.  Combine that with a fantastic staff, and great amenities, and it should be obvious why, when we say you deserve the best, Catalyst is our top choice.  Be sure to take the tour, below, and see for yourself (we’ll be hanging out in the Polka Room, complete with a Turkish style cushion cove).

We’ll be giving you plenty of opportunities to interact with each other in one-on-one settings, small groups, and all together, and having a versatile space like this one (with unlimited coffee, tea, and Diet Coke), can help facilitate those conversations.  Creative people deserve creative spaces, right?

We are excited to see you all there. Register today.
Registration deadline is August 1st.


Get Ready to Get Better.


In anticipation of our “Develop Yourself and Your Network” Convening, hosted in conjunction with the Schusterman Philanthropic Network at Catalyst Ranch in Chicago, August 11th and 12th, we decided to provide some ongoing updates, blog style.

Leading up to the big event, we’ll be posting more in depth information like speaker bios, ideas of who to meet and what to do while you are here, plus a few other goodies along the way.

To kick us off, check out some pictures highlighting the conversations we’ve had at prior convenings.

Identifying Participant Needs

by Bennie Cohen

This post is the second in a series entitled “Who Do We Serve,” inspired by our Southeast NEXTwork Launch in May 2012.

The question of “Who Do We Serve?” is one that we have already flagged as crucial to young adult engagement. When determining how to assess the experience of the people that we serve—Jewish young adults—one interesting factor stood out: the impact of the economy and growth of the “boomerang child” phenomenon. With so many young Jewish adults nationwide moving back in with their parents/guardians, we have to rethink the picture of what the average 23-year-old looks like.

At our Southeast NEXTwork Launch in May, we considered this scenario. Joel Marcovitch, director of Hillel at the University of Georgia, then posed the following question: What is a young Jewish adult going to need now and five years from now?

Brainstorm on Participant Needs

A Brainstorm on Participant Needs from the Southeast NEXTWork Launch

When considering what makes our audience unique, who they are, and what they are all about, we had not yet touched on what their needs are and how we can help—the “serve” part of “who do we serve.”

Before we solicit young Jewish adults to volunteer or come to an event, how can we help them get settled? What more immediate needs can we fulfill?

Think of the “boomerang child” moving back home, or the recent college graduate moving to a new city. We know that when someone relocates, there are certain things that have to get done in order to put their lives in order. They need to find a job, build a social network, pick new doctors, and even locate new places to eat!

What if there was a Jewish life website that could serve as a “Welcome to [your town here]!” The site could be set up to provide all of the things that a new person needs to get started and settled in the community. I know I would have greatly benefited from something like this when I moved to Atlanta.

Help me further explore this idea. What sort of information do you think should be offered on this kind of site? Do you think there should be an Angie’s List-type function so people can leave comments and ratings? Maybe by starting this discussion here, we can one day soon make it real.

As we look for new ways to engage young Jewish adults in our communities, we must try to understand not just what we need from them, but what they need from us. For many of them, finding a place to live and building up a circle of friends is a top priority, and their needs are always going to come before ours. However, as natural connectors in our communities, we can help them fill those needs. We now need to determine how. Got ideas? Please share in the comments section below!

Bennie Cohen is the Southeast Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

Engaging the Four Students

by Benji Berlow

In his book Conscious Business, Fred Koffman articulates a concept that he calls “mental models”–models that depict how each of us perceives the world.  As a result of biology, culture, and personal experiences, we each have a unique lens through which we see the world, one that is often different even from those closest to us.  Many times, we get stuck in a pattern of seeing the world a certain way, making us oblivious to problems that surround us (even though they are obvious to others with different mental models).  Koffman goes further and suggests an evolutionary model for how mental models can change overtime, from the unconscious stage (not even perceived) to the impulsive stage (“it’s all about me”) to the conformist stage (herd mentality) to the reflective stage (not satisfied with conventional thinking).

As I read Koffman’s description for each stage, it hit me that each stage corresponds to one of the four children from the Passover story, and that each child has a different mental model for how they view the Jewish community.  It inspired me to analyze college students from this perspective in order to uncover engagement methods that fit their mental model:

First is the student that does not know how to ask.  He is unconscious and unaware of the Jewish community.  However, he is not at fault for not knowing how to ask, because he has no language, no background, and no connection to the Jewish community.  For this student, one must make the barrier to entry as low as possible.  Find out who he is and create relevant and attractive programs in the physical place where he is already. Being warm and welcoming will not work, because he will never step foot into Hillel.  Your approach should be accessible, sexy, and visible.

Next is the simple student.  She knows about the Jewish community, but only has a surface relationship.  She attends events with free food, but never will stay for the speaker.  With a sense of entitlement, she will take everything that Hillel has to offer, but give nothing in return.  For this student, one must demonstrate the value of community and purpose.  Find out what her passions are and connect her like-minded students.  Show her the power of organizing and shared value.  Your approach should focus on creating networks of interest groups and meaningful programs.

Then there is the wise student.  He is absorbed in the Jewish community, perhaps even a leader.  Although he gives all of his time and energy to his group, he also seems to be going through the motions of recreating the same, stagnant programs.  For this student, one must change the status quo.  As Wayne Firestone says, “If it ain’t broke, break it.”  Challenge his assumptions and innovate with compelling, never-before-seen initiatives.  Your approach should be out-of-the-box and anything but normal.

Finally, there is the wicked student.  She knows the Jewish community, but sees herself as better than the establishment.  She may come to events, but will not fully engage with the program because she will tend to point out what is missing or unappealing.  While the simple student may not feel part of the group, the wicked student sees all of the people not included in the group.  For this student, one must trust and take a huge risk.  Create a space for her to be independent and still part of the community.  Give her an internship with responsibility to do things her way.  You will take a leap of faith to engage this student, but listening to her will allow you to connect to others who are not yet engaged and who have difficulty feeling included in their community.

I once had a teacher who explained to me the difference between Shammai and Hillel.  When someone asked a question of Shammai, he would labor intensively for days to find the “true” answer.  When a question was asked of Hillel, he would answer with a question: “Who is asking?”  As we create different models for young adult engagement and assess their effectiveness, we need to know exactly who we are engaging.  Which type of student was Taglit-Birthright Israel designed for?  What would a successful experience look like through the lens of each of these mental models?  Should we expect every student to become a leader?  How should we engage students who are already leaders?  Is the student who sees everyone that is left out of the group truly wicked or just perceived as wicked from the mental model of the establishment?

It is important to remember that while we may get stuck in our own mental model, we are able to transform and grow out of them as well.  As we continue to evolve our mental models and our engagement methods from the unconscious stage to the reflective stage, what could the next stage look like?

Benji Berlow (@benjiberlow) is the director of Jewish student life at Carnegie Mellon University.