Baltimore Jewish Teens are Creating Innovative Solutions to

Social Problems in New 4Front Teen Fellowship

Izzy Hettleman sees it all the time. Unsafe roads, in part from teens texting and driving. So when given the opportunity to address a prevailing social problem, he and two of his peers decided to look for a technological solution to create a more safe driving environment.

Joseph La Fiandra had another idea. Passionate that education leads to a successful future, and concerned about the educational challenges faced by students in underserved communities, La Fiandra reached out to teachers in Baltimore City schools. After learning that they struggled with the time it took to assess learning disabilities, his group embarked on creating a diagnostic tool that would make the process easier.

For Hettleman and La Fiandra, two Jewish high school students who are participating in a new Social Innovation Fellowship, these projects afforded them the opportunity to bring an entrepreneurial mindset to create social change. Not to mention, raise their social consciousness too.

This Fellowship is being offered by 4Front, a brand-new hub for Jewish teen engagement. Housed at the JCC and funded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Jim Joseph Foundation, 4Front features community-wide programming for Jewish teens, from sports and arts to advocacy and social entrepreneurship.

This year, 19 teens are participating in this pilot project and each is charged with designing a concept for a mission-driven, for-profit business, explained Diana Solomon, 4Front’s program coordinator.

“If you like helping people and coming up with ways to help people that no one has done before, this is the perfect program to do it,” said La Fiandra. It is showing teens that their ideas are meaningful and can make a tangible difference.”

Throughout the nine months, each team works with a mentor, chosen for their expertise in technology, social innovation and business. Monthly workshops tackle social entrepreneurial topics through a Jewish lens.

“Social entrepreneurship relates to a core concept in Judaism that Jews have a larger responsibility to the world,” said Rabbi Dena Shaffer, executive director of 4Front. “And that tenet becomes one of the underlying narratives of this program.”

This year, projects ran the gamut from education to hunger and human dignity to helping individuals with disabilities.

For Hettleman and his group that meant creating an app that turns off a phone’s texting operations when driving. Drivers received points on how many miles they travel without using the phone and earn coupons and gift cards based on these points.

Fellowship Trip to Israel

In addition, one of the highlights of the Social Innovation Fellowship was a trip to Israel, held over winter break.

“What made this trip different is that it combined Jewish identity – with trips to such historic sites as Masada and the Kotel -- with the underlying theme of Israel as a Start-Up nation,” said La Fiandra.

Some of those highlights included a scavenger hunt along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, as teens scrambled to find all the start-ups in a two block radius, and a trip to a desalination plant where they learned how this desert national solved its water shortages through technology.

Even traditional experiences were seen through an innovation lens,” explained Shaffer. “For example, after we visited Masada we held a conversation on the technology used to build the palace on such a remote site.”

And, included in the trip were visits to socially conscious start-ups, like BKind, which encourages acts of kindness globally and Naalgat, Israel’s center for deaf and blind culture.

Partnership with Ashkelon and Odessa

The Social Innovation Fellowship also is part of a partnership with teens from Ashkelon, Israel and Odessa, Ukraine, Baltimore’s sister cities. Teens from all three communities are engaged in the shared social entrepreneurship curriculum and are involved with coming up with their own social innovation projects related to the concerns they face in their own communities.

To foster peer relationships with their sister city peers, during their visit the Baltimore contingent traveled with their Odessa and Ashkelon peers for a few days, with the groups spending the final leg of their journey in Ashkelon. The Odessa and Ashkelon teens were funded, in part by the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership and the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, respectively, and the teens contributed to their costs, as well.

“We wanted them to think about Israel and Ukraine not just as a place, but as people that they know,” said Solomon.

Several things soon became apparent from the time the groups spent together. First, there was a sense that many of the social problems that the teens identified were problems that transcended borders.

For example, one of the Ashkelon projects focused on teaching technology to older adults; one of the Odessa projects was creating spaces for Jewish youth to get together.

And second, there was a realization that these teens, although they lived 1,000 miles away and under vastly different political climates, were in essence, just teens.

“We all like the same music and watch the same Netflix series,” said La Fiandra.

“We may speak a different language but they are just kids doing the same things we are and interested in the solving the same social problems that we are,” added Hettleman. “This was a great opportunity to strengthen our sister city partnership and make the world a better place.”

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