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Into the Shark Tank

Barbara Bensoussan

It looked like the script of a game show, but this time the stakes were higher. As young Jewish activists were grilled as they competed for funds from heavyweight donors, the cheering audience realized that when it comes to tzedakah, everyone wins.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

It’s Motzaei Shabbos, and the 500 people crowded into the International Ballroom of the Stamford Plaza Hotel are keyed up. They’ve been regaled in body and soul this Shabbos at the Aish HaTorah conference in New York, filled up with lavish food and inspiring speeches. And now, it’s time for a little fun, an opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs to make their pitches in front of seasoned investors. In other words, welcome to “The Jewish Shark Tank.” A brainchild of Aish mainstays Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith and Mrs. Lori Palatnik, Aish based its event on Shark Tank, a reality program in which would-be entrepreneurs present their business ideas to a panel of hardened investors, or “sharks.” The sharks hear out each person’s pitch and then pose challenging questions. If they’re unimpressed by an idea, they withdraw; if they like it, they’ll offer to exchange a hefty investment for a percentage of the business. If an idea is compelling enough, they’ll even fight among themselves for a share. The original Shark Tank became wildly popular, feeding into the everyman’s fantasy of coming up with a great invention or idea and finding a rich angel to fund it. The show provides a mini-education in business as well, as the astute, well-seasoned sharks ask pointed questions like “Did you secure the patents and licensing?” and “What are your current and projected expenses and income?” in addition to the obvious ones like “Who will want to buy this product?” and “Who is your competition?” Shark Tank’s panelists are paid to keep things exciting. They may increase the tension artificially, bidding against each other or dressing down presenters and making them squirm. The ambition of everyone involved, from the sharks to the presenters to the producers to the advertisers, is to make scads of money. But Aish HaTorah’s Rabbi Coopersmith and Mrs. Palatnik don’t seem particularly interested in becoming billionaires. They are, however, well aware of the need to fund great Jewish outreach initiatives. Hence, the novel idea for a Jewish version of Shark Tank: Bring in contestants with ideas for new Jewish organizations, and let them compete for tzedakah dollars from Jewish philanthropists. “Our motivation for doing this wasn’t just to raise money, but to inspire young Jewish leaders to take initiative and responsibility,” explains Rabbi Coopersmith. “We wanted to inspire not only the people presenting, but other young people in the audience as well.” There’s one more caveat: The Aish sharks can’t embarrass or snap at contestants. Humiliation and nasty exchanges are definitely assur in this setting. Perhaps we should call the philanthropists “dolphins” instead of “sharks”?

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