Recently, I watched a video on YouTube made by New York University film student, Barak Barkan. It features his mother sitting at the family’s kitchen table, slicing carrots. “Dinner will be ready in about an hour,” she tells Barkan, when he sits down next to her. “Great,” he replies, “but I’m here to talk to you about something else: my movie. You can tell me if you have a problem with the script.”
The film—“Killing the Fidler on the Roof!”—considers the complications inherent to dating and falling in love with someone outside of the faith—Barkan is Jewish—something he experienced personally.
“Why can’t you just date—I mean, make a nice Jewish movie that we all know, and maybe we even know the movie’s parents?” responds his mom.
Because, answers her son, it will be funny and make people think about the Jewish community as a whole, past and present.
“Well, maybe,” replies mom, “but the movie’s children still won’t be Jewish.”
The clip is brief, and pretty sweet, and made to promote his crowdfunding campaign for the film, which, rather than being on Kickstarter or Indiegogo is on Jewcer, a four-year-old platform which was created specifically to “Raise The Funds You Need For Your Jewish Project.”
I found out about Jewcer while talking to Bulletproof Stockings, the all-female Hasidic alt-rock group who recently completed a very successful crowd-funding campaign of their own, not on Jewcer, but on Kickstarter, for their debut LP. The women told me the CEO and founder of Jewcer, Amir Give’on, approached them and asked if they wouldn’t consider running their campaign on his platform. But in the four years since Bulletproof Stockings began, the women have made a significant name for themselves not only outside of Hasidic circles but also the Jewish community; they’ve appeared on nightly news programs, and national publications. But what about people like Barak Barkan, who is Jewish and a novice filmmaker undergrad? His project might not receive an abundance of attention like Bulletproof Stockings was able to do; what he needed was a platform whose focus was significantly more niche.
“Jewcer launched three-and-a-half years ago when we noticed a gap between how people use crowd funding and the reality of their success,” said Give’on, speaking to me from his home in Los Angeles. It was ten in the morning on the East Coast, or 7am for Give’on, but his day had already begun two hours earlier. Jewcer is something he runs in his “free time,” when he is not consulting for various startups based in New York or Israel. “So here is a problem and we want to find a solution to it,” he says, referencing, in particular, the fact that crowdfunding campaigns across the board have success rates that hover just around 30 percent. Jewcer reports that campaigns on its site have closer to a 70 percent success rate.
The way Give’on saw it, increasing those odds didn’t mean creating a brand new system, it meant alleviating a specific problem in the existing one—more successfully engaging donors. “We wanted to be an organization that supports rather than reinventing the wheel,” says Give’on. “We wanted to teach them how to strengthen their campaign.” Plus, other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are for-profit businesses, whereas Jewcer is not-for-profit. “It makes more sense [for Kickstarter] to invest in marketing. Our priorities are helping people succeed more. With every initiative we literally get to be on their team, and we work with them on their message, and strategy, and don’t just give them a tool, we join them in using the tool, so they know how to use it better.”
Still, this begs the question: If every crowdfunding campaign is susceptible to poor donor engagement simply because the person in charge of it has never used crowdfunding before, why limit his hands-on aid to the Jewish community? The answer for Give’on is simple. We try hardest at the things we care most about, and the most successful campaigns require a lot of time. Yet it is specifically time that most people don’t have enough of, even if the passion is there and you’re up at 5am. “Our solution requires spending a lot of time with every initiative, something we were willing to do only for Jewish-related causes,” Give’on explained.
Give’on first came to the United States twenty year ago to go to Princeton, and specifically to pursue his passion for squash. In Israel, he was on the national team. At Princeton he made varsity and studied mechanical and aerospace engineering. Eventually, he ended up working for another quite famous place. “NASA was funding my Ph.D. and I came to Pasadena to work at a jet-propulsion laboratory—it’s the place that made the Mars rovers.” Give’on did not work on those, but on space-based telescopes, ones that eventually are shot out of this hemisphere and closer to the stars. Eventually, Give’on married (his wife is president of Jewcer) and, currently, is expecting a child. Despite the fact that the majority of his work is based in New York and overseas, he is rooted in California for the time being.
To date, Jewcer has funded more than 300 projects and raised more than $2,000,000. And the projects are not just artistic; many are overtly political. Two that are currently advertised are campaigns to fund winter gear for Israel Defense Forces and for a newspaper ad, i.e. “Help us put an ad in the New York Times to hold Palestinian leaders accountable for racism, violent incitement, and murder, since most of the media keeps getting it wrong.” This, of course, is a far cry from a student film on interfaith dating. So with this in mind, I had to ask if Jewcer sells itself as a neutral alternative to standard crowdfunding for the Jewish community? According to Give’on, yes.
“First, I would not call it ‘anti-Palestinian,'” he wrote to me when I asked abut the advertising campaign. “They want to raise money to publicly call Palestinian leaders to stop the incitement and end the cycle of blood.'” But even that, Give’on says, is beside the point. “Having political (or perceived as political) campaigns, does not make the platform political. It is like calling Facebook political because people post content with a political nature.” Of course, Mark Zuckerberg is not actively supporting the political messaging that appears on his platform. But, in as much as Give’on throws himself equally into all Jewcer projects, he maintains his neutrality. There are only three kinds of campaigns that Jewcer will not accept: those that have nothing to do with Jewish values, the community, or Israel; campaigns that would hurt any group; and campaigns for personal expenses (medical, travel, etc.), due to the possibility of fraud charges, he wrote to me. “We are apolitical in the sense that if you have an initiative that you think benefits the Jewish community and/or Israel, then we would help you regardless of YOUR political views. We do not take sides (if there are any sides to take).”
I asked what campaign he was most proud of, and he was happy to hear my emphasis on pride, rather than dollar amount; the one he loved most had a goal of only $600, and it was directed by an 11-year-old boy who wanted to improve the recycling program at his synagogue. “First I thought that it was his parents and, no. His father called me and said, ‘Listen, he’s just really passionate about this.’ And to me, that is a huge success.” What really counts, Give’on explains—the real key to crowd-funding success—is the leg work and passion that campaigners put into their project, and to engage others in the same.
“It sounds cheesy, but later people come to thank us, and we say we want to thank them, to have the opportunity to be part of what they’re doing.” Give’on explains. “It’s not about asking for money, it’s about giving people the opportunity to be a part of something amazing.”
With that, I remembered that the volunteer CEO of Jewcer likely had to start his full-time job, as it was by then almost 8 in the morning in Los Angeles, and well into the work day where his other clients lived. But Give’on did not sound rushed and thanked me for our conversation.
“Shabbat shalom,” he told me. “Bye-bye.”