Valley Beit Midrash (VBM) has announced the third cohort for its Start Me Up! fellowship program, which encourages Jewish social entrepreneurs up to age 45 to bring innovative ideas to the Valley’s Jewish community.

“The Phoenix Jewish community is becoming more innovative and dynamic than ever before,” said Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, VBM president and dean. “VBM is harnessing the energy from the greatest young talent to ensure our community is the best it can be.”

The one-year fellowship, which launches in September, will include educational sessions, mentorship and training in management, social entrepreneurship and adaptive leadership.

“These fellows are dynamic, passionate and ready to hit the ground running,” Yanklowitz said. “They meet the very high bar of excellence set by all the past Jewish social entrepreneurs we’ve trained and funded to launch new initiatives in our community.”

Collectively, the programs aim to support vulnerable groups, such as children with special needs, the elderly and the LGBT community, in addition to young professionals. Some of the eight fellows’ projects are in the early development stage, while others are already under way.

Shalom Home

Husband-and-wife fellows Jesse and Shira Charyn are founding Shalom Home, a Jewish assisted-living home in Phoenix.

“This will be a home unlike any other,” the couple told Jewish News via email. “We emphasize sustainability and will have a greenhouse and a hen house on premises. We are building the home with the kibbutz mindset, in which every member of the Shalom Home will feel valued and will contribute to the overall feeling of community.”

According to the couple, they have the property, have completed the majority of the building and renovations and are awaiting final approval from governing agencies. They also said they have received formal recognition as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

“We view the Valley Beit Midrash’s Start Me Up! fellowship as an opportunity to meet other Jewish entrepreneurs and gain insights into nonprofit management, and generating awareness in the community for the Shalom Home,” they said.


Rabbi Nate Crane, associate rabbi at Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale, aims to found an organization based on a program from his former synagogue in Chicago: Healthy Understanding Growing Spaces (H.U.G.S.), which provided Jewish religious programming for the Chicago Jewish special needs community.

In his current role at Or Tzion, Crane said he has “been blessed to work with individuals and families with special needs toward a mission of furthering inclusion and accessibility within the Jewish community.”

He wants to broaden this mission through an organization that will encourage partnerships between local synagogues and organizations to offer children and adults of all ages with special needs appropriate, meaningful and fun Jewish holiday celebrations.

Social justice

AJ Frost, VBM operations director, is developing a hub for social justice projects for young professionals in their 20s.

“I envision my Start Me Up! project as a dynamic new hub that will allow young professionals together to think more deeply and compassionately about how we can make our community brighter and more vibrant for the too-often-overlooked vulnerable populations in our midst,” Frost said.

Victim support

Ross Kader, an attorney, plans to establish an interfaith lawyers group that will support victims of hate crimes through lobbying, pro bono legal work and facilitating community discussions. His project is a broadening of a previous initiative led by Yanklowitz that organized interfaith discussions with local Muslim leadership.

“I intend to focus this relationship and create an interfaith legal action network,” Kader said. “This network will consist of lawyers of multiple faiths who are ready to work together to combat hatred toward our respective communities. As a lawyer, I feel I would be most effective putting my unique skills to work. And, as a Jew, I feel compelled to fight against hatred affecting my own community, but also a responsibility to support other communities who face similar problems. I hope this project can directly fight hatred as our main objective, but I also hope to build stronger interfaith bonds by working together with other communities.”

Multigenerational workshops

Jessica Levin, coordinator of Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Aleinu program and a licensed professional counselor in JFCS’ older adult program, plans to facilitate multigenerational educational workshops that increase interpersonal skills and effective communication.

“I chose to participate in the project because I think the best way to create change is through educating,” Levin told Jewish News. “I also believe that it is important to help mentor and shape future leaders.”

Meditation center

Alan Elhart, a practitioner of Jewish meditation, would like to develop Pnei Hamayim Jewish Meditation Center, a progressive, radically inclusive space for Jewish contemplative life in the Valley to bring Jewish spirituality, mindfulness and meditation to Jewish adults across the denominational and gender spectrums.


Mila Altman plans to develop a matchmaking service for Jewish singles in the Phoenix area.

Start Me Up! debuted in 2011 under the direction of Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, founding director of VBM. Current programs that resulted from the fellowship, which was previously a two-year program, include the Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest, an annual Jewish musical festival founded in 2013 by Temple Solel Cantorial Soloist Todd Herzog; Ladles of Love, an initiative launched by Nicki Kaplan in 2016 that coordinates volunteers to prepare and deliver nutritious, kosher meals to the sick and elderly; and Schmooze, founded in 2015 by Start Me Up! fellow Cory Shapiro with Lindsay Gilbert, which provides programming to help facilitate connections between Jewish singles, young couples and young families in their 30s and 40s. JN

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