MassChallenge Israel: Where YU and Startup Nation Collide
I woke up the morning of my flight, passport ready and headphones charged, to a text that my trip was cancelled. For the second time. I had signed on for the inaugural season of YU MassChallenge Israel, a summer internship program run by YU in partnership with the eponymous startup accelerator, but our flight kept getting delayed due to a COVID-related visa backlog at the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. Somewhat disheartened, I re-unpacked my suitcase.
Two days later, though, the daybreak text read “WE ARE ON!” shadowed by no fewer than 14 Israeli flag emoji. And the following afternoon, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I and my fellow interns tumbled out of a creaking minibus in the middle of YU’s suburban Jerusalem campus.
It was worth the wait. I spent the next two months at the Israel branch of MassChallenge, a global zero-equity accelerator which provides Israeli and international early-stage companies the resources, training and connections they need to thrive in the modern business world. In my specific role, I helped build links between entrepreneurs and corporate partners in an effort to keep our corner of the Israeli innovation machine running as smoothly as possible. Two other interns and I worked directly at MassChallenge, and half a dozen others were paired with various startups that had graduated from its accelerator in years prior. Our work experience, despite being stuffed with hours of cold calls and Excel spreadsheets, was often exciting and always eye-opening, exposing us to fascinating and unexpected aspects of Israeli business culture. (The degree to which projects are equitable and collaborative has no parallel on Madison Avenue or Wall Street. Nor, of course, do the sandals people wear to the office.)
The summer seemed to end as abruptly as it began. On the evening of July 26th, guests filtered into the courtyard of the MassChallenge Israel headquarters, housed in the old Shaarei Tzedek building on Jaffa Street. String lights blinked on, casting a rich glow on the inventors, investors and innovators milling about the outdoor venue. A few taps on the mic indicated that the keynote was about to begin. Seats were taken, conversations halted. Against a purple Jerusalem sky, judges announced the nine winners of the 2021 accelerator cohort, selected from the class of 42 to go on a fundraising roadshow in New York and Boston. Triumphant founders and ecstatic co-founders wept over their glimmering crystal trophies and even brighter prospects, the whirring of the light rail providing a sort of abstract commentary off in the distance.
I loved the work from beginning to end, but the extracurricular experience was similarly impressive. At YU’s campus on Duvdevani Street, we enjoyed an open Beit Midrash and numerous shiurim by figures from inside and outside the YU community. Once a week, the ten of us would board that same creaky minibus to the headquarters of an Israeli high tech company, where we met researchers and executives who shared their stories and introduced us to the pioneering projects undertaken by their respective organizations. And on the rides there and back, we got to know each other too, forming and solidifying friendships sure to last well beyond the conclusion of the program.
Such a positive summer experience got us thinking that YU could and should facilitate footholds for its students in Israel in more serious ways. And the need could not be more pressing. Key events over the past few years have accelerated certain social trends that have been bubbling below the surface of Information Age society for quite some time. The pandemic has snowballed an embrace of remote and hybrid work, and resulting job insecurity especially among young people has solidified shifts away from the liberal arts and toward concrete vocational training, especially in tech-related fields. Unease with standardized testing and traditional grading has led academic institutions to move away from or completely abandon such touchstones. Very recently, stock market volatility and unprecedented access to equities markets has exposed Gen. Z to retail investing and the corporate culture it brings with it. Closer to home, political developments across the globe have shocked diaspora Jewry out of complacency in the face of rising antisemitism, and driven record numbers of young Western Jews to consider building new lives for themselves in the Jewish State.
To me, this geopolitical crucible represents a perfect opportunity for YU to launch a more permanent version of our summerlong internship program. Repackaged as a YU semester abroad, the initiative could see students take Brand Management on Mondays… and go to work at local startups on Tuesdays to put their coursework into practice for actual brands. A longer-term partnership with MassChallenge and its alumni could provide a steady stream of relevant employment options in diverse sectors. Classes could, at least initially, be a mix of virtual and in-person to maximize the university’s resources across New York and Jerusalem. Employee performance metrics at the internships could complement traditional grading and examination.
Fundamentally, YU would be able to further actualize its core Zionist values, bringing the next generation of world Jewry to its historic homeland and fostering bilateral flourishing in terms of physical safety, economic development and spiritual growth.
Morning following the MassChallenge finale was bright and quiet, with a slight breeze. We spent it deconstructing –– taking apart tables and lugging their components into storage, organizing and itemizing unclaimed notebooks and party favors, untying flags and pennants from the building’s exterior walls and watching them flutter softly to the ground. As I worked, primeval dust from the Shaarei Tzedek cellars mixed on my palms with nascent dew that had collected over the banners left out overnight. It reminded me of the riotous surrealism of tackling tomorrow’s challenges in the capital of Jewish yesteryear. The latest in artificial intelligence coming alive a short walk from where King David encountered Aravnah the farmer, negotiated to buy his threshing floor and built upon it an altar to the God of his forefathers.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Caption: The Old Shaarei Tzedek building on Jaffa Street, where MassChallenge Israel’s offices are located