Haredi Nation vs. Startup Nation: JNext and the Irony of Sunday’s Protest

by Brian on March 4, 2014

in In the News,Politics,Technology

Hansen Startup PartyThe irony was almost too delicious – and at the same time dreadfully serious – to avoid. The hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who rallied on Sunday essentially against integrating into Israeli society nearly sabotaged an event across town meant to position Jerusalem as the “capital” of the Startup Nation with all the jobs that go with that…jobs in which the haredim, if their two hours of prayer were to be understood correctly, would most certainly not be participating.

Sunday’s massive ultra-Orthodox protest against “sharing the burden” and ultimately exiting the yeshivas and entering first the army and later the workforce was held on the same day, and at nearly at the same time, as the festive launch event for JNext, a new organization meant to foster an interdisciplinary ecosystem for startups and entrepreneurs in capital.

But the haredi rally blocked the entrance to the city – Highway 1 from Tel Aviv was shut to private cars from 1 PM in the afternoon and public transportation in the city, including the light rail, was severely disrupted. How would those supporters of more jobs in Jerusalem who wanted to make the drive from out of town (or for that matter, to arrive by Egged from across town) make it to the party?

The backers of JNext came up with a clever idea: they received permission to run two free buses from the park-and-ride lot near Ben-Gurion Airport up Highway 1 (along with the nearly 2,000 buses filled with haredim coming to their extravaganza). As the techies and VCs waited in line to enter one bus at the park-and-ride lot, a young haredi couple with a stroller and kids in tow tried to climb on board too. They look flustered when told where this particular vehicle was headed and turned back abruptly.

And rightly so: the JNext event would have been quite a study in contrasts for that couple. Where the ultra-Orthodox rally was swathed exclusively in black and white, JNext had decorated the new Hansen visual arts compound in spectacular color; spotlights bathed the former leper hospital in Jerusalem’s Talbiye neighborhood in pinks and greens and yellows and reds. The central courtyard, once home to some of the region’s most untouchables, was now hopping with hipsters, 350 of whom came out to eat fresh baked focaccia and mushroom and cream stuffed pita pockets, and to drink hot soup and spiked lemon punch.

The Hansen center was a perfect location: now the headquarters for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s graduate studies program, it has been transformed into a hub of creativity and, in addition to the guests getting their first public glimpse of the space, various rooms were decked with comfy chill out couches where video screens told the story of a revitalized Jerusalem, while local success stories including Bob Rosenschein (ex-Answers.com, now Curiyo) and Danna Hochstein Mann of red-hot crowd funding investment platform OurCrowd gave 30 minute “inspiration” talks. JNext’s Netta Frank did a bang-up job of producing the event.

The message was clear: Jerusalem is no longer a moribund backwater to Tel Aviv; it is coming into its own as a hi-tech hub.

Indeed, as Mayor Nir Barkat, who mingled with the guests and later was interviewed by Startup Nation author Saul Singer across the street in the well appointed auditorium of the Hartman Institute, pointed out, there is a refreshing sense of déjà vu in Jerusalem: the city has not been so alive with new hi-tech ventures since the 1990s when a similar ecosystem of young creative entrepreneurs emerged.

That all was extinguished in the dot.com crash of the early 2000’s, with a further, terrifying nail added to the economic coffin by the Second Intifada. Startups fled to Tel Aviv and the merkaz, and Jerusalem was left bereft of its entrepreneurial soul. The city tried to promote biotech as the fuel for its resurgence, and to a certain extent succeeded, but at Sunday’s JNext event, it was obvious that there was more afoot.

MadeinJLMAs Hanan Brand, an associate with JVP Media Labs and co-founder of MadeinJLM, a non-profit that aims to “brand” the city by affixing its catchy logo to city startups and their websites, explained, of the 300 or so startups MadeinJLM has in its database, 150 are biotech, but another 100 are in the Internet, media and games sectors.

And not just in the parts of town you’d expect. Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann is the high tech coordinator for the Unit for Development and Entrepreneurship in East Jerusalem. She was practically bursting at the seams to share news about the first-ever high tech meet-up in East Jerusalem – an event of a newly founded group called JEST (Jerusalem Entrepreneurship Society and Technology) that two weeks earlier brought 110 East Jerusalemites out for a meeting on how to nurture and create a culture of high tech interconnectedness on their side of the city.

During the event, MadeinJLM projected a Google map on the wall in the courtyard showing the locations of the city’s resurgent hi-tech scene. None are in East Jerusalem…at least not yet.

Stav Erez is the effervescent manager of the JNext initiative. Decked out in a black mini-dress that would have fit in perfectly with the Tel Aviv tech scene, she explained how her group seeks to serve as the central body for the growing number of hi-tech launches that are building the new Jerusalem ecosystem.

These include investors like OurCrowd, JVP and Ben Wiener’s Jumpspeed Ventures; hubs and accelerators like Talipiot’s uber-hip PICO and the Hebrew University-backed SifTech (where Erez got her start); and community-promotion groups such as GameDevJLM, which aims to support the small but growing number of video game developers in town, veteran Anglo networking group the Jerusalem Business Networking Forum, and even UHF, a support group for ultra-Orthodox hi-tech workers (although, other than Jonathan Caras, co-founder of Glide, a sexy video messaging app that now has 30 staff in Jerusalem, the black hat and velvet kippa crowd was entirely absent).

These organizations regularly put on events, such as BeeraTech, a play on the word “beera” which means both “capital” and “beer” in Hebrew, and that meets monthly at local bars to drink and learn from prominent guest speakers from the tech world. GameDevJLM does the same for gamers. There are breakfast networking meetings for techies, and all of the hubs sponsor frequent lectures, too. All told, there are events nearly every day now in Jerusalem – see the MadeinJLM calendar.

But the JNext launch on Sunday was on an entirely different level, both in terms of the size of the crowd and the requisite buzz. The desired takeaway: Jerusalem is back, baby.

The scene today in Jerusalem is different from what existed in the 1990s in another way: as vibrant as the tech scene was then, the city never formally backed it. Today, JNext has a three-year budget of NIS 15 million, which comes from the municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs on the national level. Moreover, through JNext, the JDA has instituted a program providing grants of up to NIS 50,000 per Jerusalem resident employee (to a maximum of NIS 500,000 per company). The JDA is also providing NIS 250,000 per accelerator to help these groups establish a presence.

The entrepreneurial renaissance is bolstered by a city that is almost unrecognizable from just a few years ago. Cultural and entertainment centers are blossoming, from the renovated First Station complex to the brand new Cinema City (where, Barkat pointed out in his talk, he saw a couple of startupistim sitting with laptops in the Café Greg presumably working on their business plan). The number of cultural activities in the city, such as the recently completed Shaon Horef Monday night street parties, or environmental projects, including the soon-to-open Gazelle Valley urban nature reserve, make the city that much more attractive to young entrepreneurs contemplating staying in town after their university studies. (Now, if something could be done to bring down home purchase and rental prices…)

Sunday’s JNext launch was originally planned for October 7, 2013. That day turned out to be the funeral of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the city was shuttered to the outside world as some 800,000 mourners poured in. The event was postponed until this week when, as Erez wrote to attendees in an email, it was almost canceled again. But this time, the decision was taken that the show would go on as planned and from the long lines to get in, there was no doubt: Jerusalem isn’t waiting for anyone anymore. You can start a company in the capital and there’s a thriving community, support organizations, cool spaces to meet, and money to help.

Now, if the message can only get across to the other side of town…

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JNext doesn’t have a website yet, but you can find the videos that were played during the evening herehereherehereherehere and here.

This article appeared  originally on The Jerusalem Post.

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