The MyImpact Project Featuring: Imu Shalev

Imu Shalev is the CEO at Aleph Beta. He works closely with Rabbi David Fohrman and a team of writers, producers and animators on creating podcasts and video presentations for the meaningful study of Biblical text. Immanuel hosts “Into the Verse” with Rabbi Fohrman, a podcast dedicated to exploring textual themes in the Parsha. Imu also served as Executive Producer and brand consultant for Mayim Bialik’s YouTube and social media channels. Immanuel previously served as a singer and Director of the Maccabeats and wrote and produced the viral video “Candlelight” with over 16 million hits on youtube. He is passionate about bringing meaning to Jewish education through the medium of podcast, video and technology. Immanuel graduated from Fordham Law school, and Yeshiva University.

How did you get started with your Jewish community work?

While in university, I saw a lot of my peers studying to be rabbis and I thought that was the best way to influence the Jewish community. I noticed that our community structures were set up in a way that necessitated the people doing communal work to partner with donors. Donors, people who make a lot of money have a lot of decision making power and influence. Since I was interested in making broad systemic changes, I assumed that the best way to make those changes was to acquire wealth, sit on boards and make some influential decisions.

Then, during law school, I was a part of the Maccabeats, and we had our first viral video. I was completely moved by the power of the internet to spread messages and influence. The video had a huge impact- we had people tell us that they lit Chanukah candles or learned Gemara for the first time in years because of that video. I was totally inspired by that success, and immediately following law school I moved directly to the nonprofit world with the aim of sharin Torah and Jewish values through social media. It sounds so obvious today in 2022 that the internet is a great way to share Torah, but in 2010, the concept was not so obvious.

If you had a year off and an extra million dollars to tackle a big problem facing the Jewish community - what would it be and why?

I believe one of our biggest problems in Orthodoxy is that we pay too much attention to the letter of the law , and often we miss the spirit and values behind our law. I am really passionate about the idea of creating a curriculum for high school or college (and eventually building schools based on this ideology) with the primary goal of teaching Jewish values. What does Judaism look like from the bottom up, what are the values behind mitzvot and Torah law? I think that when we focus on the values and morals of what we do in addition to the fact that we have to do these mitzvot, we will have much more committed and engaged Jews, who are looking for opportunities for mitzvot. Our community will be more caring to those around us and more committed to serving God. We may start realizing that many of our communities are highly materialistic with few opportunities for less fortunate individuals to join or feel welcome. These things really do come down to values. If we get our values right, a lot of the other problems we face in the community will self correct. We are in a situation right now where the wealthy and most powerful are trying to “fix” the problems in our community, but if we can enable all members of our community to contribute creatively, then many of our “problems” will automatically shift toward correction.

Tell us about an epic failure or setback you’ve experienced in your work. What did you learn from that experience?

In the early days of Aleph Beta, fundraising was very important and getting our pitch just right was essential. So many situations in those early days of fundraising left me feeling dejected and vulnerable from asking people for money. So many donors would straight up say, sorry, but this isn’t for me, and some donors even felt slighted in the way I had asked for funds. Getting it right felt difficult, and overall demeaning.

I learned 2 important lessons the hard way about fundraising, that dramatically shifted my approach:

People who are building things in the Jewish world are not less than, nor should they feel any sense of rejection from donors. Donors should feel privileged to partner with those of us trying to build something unique and influential- we’re not less than or more than. I started to look at fundraising not as begging for money, but as an opportunity to partner with us to make a change. If you want to partner with us, great, if not, great. Some donors don’t want to donate to my cause, and I don’t feel badly about that and neither should they. I want my donors to feel energized and excited about my cause, that we are on a journey together. This change in approach dramatically shifted my experience as a fundraiser- we are on a journey with our donors. The second major lesson I learned is that you are especially vulnerable when you rely on a few major donors. If you have a whole crowd of smaller donors, not only are your revenue streams more secure, but you are more likely to remain honest in your mission. We are looking to create value for thousands of people, not just a few pulling the strings.

What person (or people) has had a particularly big influence on your Jewish communal work?

My brother Kuti Shalev, who taught me to think effectively about how to bring a great idea to life that really serves the community. There are a lot of brilliant visionaries out there who think they have a way to serve the Jewish community. You can spend a lot of money building those ideas, but then it doesn’t work. You know the phrase, “build it and they will come”, well very often, we spend a lot of money building something and then they dont come, because you didn’t really understand the people you were serving. My brother is very into early startup methodology which really teaches you to find product market fit, to really ensure that the product you are building has a hungry market that is interested in what you are selling or creating. A way you can save a lot of money and time is by building something called ‘MVP’ (minimal viable product), launch it, ship it and see if people like it. That idea has had a profound impact on me, because my intuition is like everyone else’s in the field which is a top down approach- but it turns out, that’s a fast way to waste a lot of time and money. Now, when I build a product or think of an initiative for the community, I try very hard to ask the right questions and really think about what the market wants and what people need. Then I create something very small to test my hypothesis, using as few resources as possible to see if the idea works.

What advice would you give to other young people who want to make more of an impact on the Jewish community?

I would advise others looking to get into Jewish communal work to be very sensitive and wise about what your sources of revenue are or could be. A lot of us go into communal work for idealism, and many people become quickly jaded as they spend a lot of their time fundraising. Some people can become resentful, thinking that the money should just show up if they are showing up to do good work for the community. I believe that before going into communal work, you should be very responsible and curious about your revenue streams, and you should set up your organizations to ensure that you have a steady income. When you are realistic, and your organization is set up for success, then you are proud of how you make your money. You are partnering with your donors, and not extracting money from them, and you can be proud that your dreams are financially sustainable.

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