Jenerator to help nonprofit make a bit of profit

Wilderness Torah, which connects Jews spiritually to the great outdoors, is often cited as one of the Bay Area’s most innovative nonprofits.

With a new grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Wilderness Torah soon may not be quite as nonprofit as before.

Zelig Golden of Wilderness Torah

Issued in September, the $150,000 grant will fund Wilderness Torah’s launch of a for-profit training institute to teach other Jewish communities how to adopt and adapt the Wilderness Torah model.

That includes various youth and community education programs, Shabbat, holiday and festival celebrations and leadership training, nearly all of it under an open sky.

Wilderness Torah will also benefit from a new service, dubbed Jenerator, which matches federation-supported Jewish organizations with pro bono business experts to help develop for-profit ventures.

“Our vision was to create robust nature-based programs in the Bay Area,” said Wilderness Torah founding director Zelig Golden. “And if it worked, we wanted to support other communities to do the same. We’ve had requests from all over the United States and other countries for Wilderness Torah-like programs in their communities.”

Golden stressed that while the new institute will teach the Wilderness Torah model to others, the intention is not to franchise Wilderness Torah cookie-cutter-style.

To illustrate, he offered his own parable of the oak tree.

“In California, we have oaks, so we send kids to look at actual oak trees to connect,” he says. “In New York you don’t have oaks, so [participants] would have to connect to a different kind of tree. It’s a highly adaptable model.”

Bab Freiberg, the federation’s director of strategic consulting, said her agency’s innovation committee sought out organizations “that wanted to bring in earned income instead of always having their hand out. We asked whether we could help these organizations with what is called a double bottom line.”

Freiberg said the Wilderness Torah for-profit proposal was “a winner” and an ideal match for a Jenerator pro bono consultant.

Young participants in a Wilderness Torah event

“In addition to seed capital, we’re adding outside expertise,” she said. “It’s based on the same concept as Silicon Valley and its angel operators and accelerators. The Jewish community is rich with knowledge and expertise about how to make a business successful. We want to tap that.”

Golden said the proposed institute will not be a separate for-profit business.

“It’s part of Wilderness Torah,” he noted. “This will all be under the 501(c)(3). The theory is there’s enough demand to provide for this institute and support it in a way that it will be a revenue-generating venture beyond what we raise from individual donors. It helps us become more self-sustaining.”

In an ad on its website, the federation is seeking a pro bono consultant to guide Wilderness Torah. Golden says the plan is to launch the institute by next summer; eventually he also wants to open other branches of the institute on the East Coast and Israel.

 “It’s exciting that the federation came in to support this,” he said. “ It’s exciting to have communal partnership in developing what we think is an exciting new chapter.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.