August 15, 2022 – The Digital Storytellers Lab of the Jewish Writers’ Initiative has selected thirteen digital media writers/creators for its inaugural program. A project of Maimonides Fund, the Lab is an eight-month fellowship designed to kickstart the development of new digital audio/visual media exploring Jewish themes and narratives, encouraging creators to tell Jewish stories in innovative, digital-first ways. Fellows will receive a generous stipend, mentorship, and technical and subject-matter expertise to support the development of their projects.
The fellows hail from a variety of professional backgrounds – including journalists, filmmakers, novelists, songwriters, game designers, and more – and were chosen via an open call for proposals that brought in over 260 applications.
“We were overwhelmed by the response, and by the strength of the applications,” said Maimonides Fund President Mark Charendoff. “It shows there is a real hunger from talented and accomplished storytellers to explore Jewish content, and we are excited to see what comes out of this first cohort.”
The projects the fellows will be developing through the Lab are for both youth and adult audiences, and span a wide array of digital formats, including fiction and non-fiction podcasts, TikTok and Instagram series, live action and animated video, an interactive narrative game, and a digital graphic novel. Subject matter is similarly varied, with stories that explore Jewish history from Iran to Eastern Europe; investigate contemporary social issues and their impact on Jewish lives; mine and reimagine Jewish texts; and examine aspects of Jewish identity and tradition through the lens of food, fashion, music and more.
“We could have built a group that was all podcasts or all animation, or that was all work for kids, or adults. We think there is value in bringing creators together crafting an array of distinct work, from different perspectives and backgrounds, and who will inspire each other,” said Sarah Lefton, who serves as Creative Director of the Lab and created BimBam, the studio behind hundreds of animated Jewish shorts on YouTube including the Shaboom preschool series. “What unites all the projects is their use of highly crafted, scripted storytelling that delves deeply into Jewish subject matter on new media platforms.”
The Digital Storytellers Lab grew out of a similar program for screenwriters launched by the Jewish Writers’ Initiative in 2019, in which fellows developed Jewish themed scripts for mainstream film and television. More information about the screenwriting fellows and their projects is available on the Initiative website.
See below for the 2022-23 Digital Storytellers Lab fellows and visit www.jwinitiative.com for more information.
2022-23 DIGITAL STORYTELLERS LAB FELLOWS
Robert Axelrod is a gay Jewish writer based in Los Angeles, originally hailing from Michigan, whose work focuses on exploring the intersectionality of identity and culture. He is the recipient of the Humanitas New Voices fellowship, CineStory TV fellowship, and is a previous winner of the ScreenCraft Stage Play Competition as well as The A-List, an annual competition honoring the best work by assistants in the entertainment industry.
Project: NICE JEWISH BOYS, Narrative Podcast – A group of gay Jewish millennials work to understand exactly what they’re doing with their lives, their careers, and their religion.
Alex Mann is a writer, director & producer in the action, sci-fi and thriller genres, and the founder & CEO of Space Oddity, a next-gen content studio backed by Snap Inc. Mann has written, directed a produced original content for Participant, SundanceTV, Crypt TV, Awesomeness, Hooked and Disney, and is a sought-after commercial director for brands such as Netflix, TikTok, Amazon, Verizon and Honda. Mann is a member of the Writers Guild of America West and is represented by The Gotham Group.
Project: ARCANA, Live Action Social Media Episodic – ARCANA is a serialized, scripted short-form thriller series about an aimless, 20-something Persian Jewish woman, who finds purpose in investigating the mysterious disappearance of her best friend, a search that leads her down the rabbit hole of Jewish mysticism.
Marina Michelson is a writer, director, and actor originally from Tel Aviv, born to Soviet émigrés from the Republics of Georgia and Moldova. Her work explores identity and power dynamics through the day-to-day lived experiences of women, as well as her upbringing as a third culture kid. She holds a BFA in Theater from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and her short films have been recognized on the film festival circuit, including “Stagiaire,” which premiered at the 2021 Maryland Film Festival and “Biophilia,” which garnered the Outstanding Achievement Award for Best Screenplay at the 2018 Brooklyn Film Festival.
Project: VAGABOND STARS, Scripted Narrative Podcast – Vagabond Stars follows an amateur Yiddish Theater troupe in 1930s Eastern Europe who must help hide an activist on the run from Stalin’s Secret Police in their touring vaudeville act.
Brian Ash is a Bronx raised and Yeshiva educated producer and writer specializing in adult animation, comic books and feature films. Brian’s TV credits include Adult Swim’s “The Boondocks”, “Black Dynamite”, “The Jellies” and “Lazor Wulf.” He is the co-creator of the “Alef Blessed” collectible card game.
Project: WISE UP, Animated Kids’ Web Series – In WISE UP, a sister and brother from Chelm, the legendary Yiddish town of fools, have their whole world turned upside down after snacking on some ancient apple jam made from the Tree of Knowledge. It’s all fun, games and wild adventures, until they accidentally unleash an existential threat that can only be stopped if they are able to rally their village in a most rare display of common sense.
Josh Burstein is a standup comedian and journalist. A digital strategist who produced content for the Obama Administration and Biden campaigns, Josh works at the intersection of impact, education, and entertainment.
Project: AHEE’S KOSHER OMAKASE, Mixed Format Family Series – Follow the story of Ahee, a mixed kid learning through food to be proud of his uniqueness. Asian/Jewish food lovers of all ages will learn fusion recipes, celebrate culture and learn about the pressures of assimilation.
V (she/her) of the Youtube channel SnappyDragon, is a dressmaker, public historian, and videographer who explores the social realities of the past and present through fashion history. Her videos use everything from sewing techniques to TikTok trends and popular media to break down historical misconceptions and discuss topics such as representation, Jewish history, and disability justice.
Project: THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS, YouTube Series – In a series of Youtube videos, a Jewish dress historian introduces fashion enthusiasts and costume drama audiences to authentic, personally engaging Jewish stories by researching, recreating, and revealing the significance of the clothes worn by her first-generation Jewish American ancestors.
Danielle Dardashti returns to her roots with this project – revisiting her family’s story and getting back to broadcasting. She’s a former TV/radio reporter and Emmy-winning documentary writer/producer. Danielle now leads storytelling workshops and advises companies on story strategy. She’s a Moth StorySLAM champ and co-founder of Storyboom, a live storytelling show. Danielle and her husband are co-authors of the Jewish Family Fun Book series.
Project: THE NIGHTINGALE OF IRAN, Documentary Podcast – Known as the Nightingale of Iran, Younes Dardashti – a Persian Jew – was one of the most famous singers in the country. But after the Iranian revolution, his voice and his narrative were erased. Now three of his granddaughters – a storyteller (Danielle), a musician (Galeet), and a rabbi (Michelle) – seek a deeper understanding of the story, and re-trace their family’s journey from Iran to Israel to America.
Sophie Greenbaum is a songwriter, Torah educator and the mother of two young kids. She has written songs for the likes of Britney Spears, Kesha, and many other pop artists. She currently studies full-time in the Beit Midrash program of Maharat.
Project: SESSIONS WITH THE MATRIARCHS, Music/Social Media – Twelve incredible matriarchs of the Jewish people will finally have their stories told after thousands of years of silence by way of a 12-song/video pop album and a series of streamed writing sessions.
Sam Butin is a writer and narrative designer. His work blends cinematic storytelling with game design to tell unique stories that invite audience agency. Past projects include: 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (BAFTA, SXSW, Facebook Game of the Year), HERO (Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival Storyscapes Winner) and Fire Escape: An Interactive Narrative Series (NYFF, Tribeca, VIFF).
Project: NORMANDIE, Choice-Based Narrative/Game – Normandie is an interactive choice-driven narrative, told in web based episodes, that immerse audiences into the final journey of the famous ocean liner on its last transatlantic crossing in 1939. Told from the first-person perspective of the creator’s Swiss grandfather and his immediate family (who were aboard the ship), it features the intersecting lives of dozens of Czech, Polish, Swiss, & French Jews, who set sail from Paris in a pre-war world and arrived in New York to a world lit-aflame by it.
Dan Goldman is ascreenwriter, illustrator and narrative designer who tells stories across comics, animation and video games. His graphic novel Chasing Echoes recounts a road trip of Holocaust survivors’ descendants across Poland to find their family’s land seized by Nazis during WWII. He is currently based in Brooklyn.
Project: MONSEY BLUES, Digital Graphic Novel – Set after a synagogue shooting, MONSEY BLUES follows a Hasidic cantor who buys pistols for his and his son’s tallis bags to defend their congregation against the threat of another active shooter. But what happens to each man’s relationship to G-d—and to each other—as they train themselves to kill?
Yael Levy is an author, illustrator, and screenwriter who loves creating Jewish – themed projects for kids. Represented by the Seymour Agency in NY, Yael currently writes graphic novels, and scripts for animated TV shows. She enjoys reading, hiking, and her husband’s perfect potato kugel.
Project: THE SOLOMON CHRONICLES, Animated Tween Web Series – When demon hordes are unleashed over Brooklyn, it’s up to twelve-year old Johnny Solomon and his brother Ari to save the world. Jewish folklore meets the contemporary world in THE SOLOMON CHRONICLES.
Michael O’Konis (they/he) and Marnina Schon (she/her) are a real-life couple who create sketch comedy together as Couplet and #NotARabbi. They wrote and performed the award-winning musical comedy More Guns! which ran for two years at Second City and toured to San Francisco. Marnina has also performed as an actor on stage with South Coast Rep, Center Theater Group, Berkeley Rep, and Story Pirates, as well as on screen in the upcoming series Chanshi with Henry Winkler, while Michael writes sketches at Upright Citzen’s Brigade, scores films, and releases music as Lookalike (feat. Marnina on violin and vocals).
Project: DOOM SCROLL, Musical Web Series – A cynically Jewish 20-something finds herself magically trapped in the Torah. With the help of Biblical characters, Talmudic commentators, and original songs, she must make meaning of the ancient text to escape the scroll and return to her life.
Omer Benjakob is an investigative journalist with Haaretz in Israel. He covers disinformation and is focused on the intersection of technology and politics. He was born in New York, raised in Tel Aviv and is a research fellow at the LPI in Paris. He divides his time between these locations.
Project: HOW TO FAKE A DEATHCAMP, Investigative Podcast – A documentary podcast about the biggest hoax in Wikipedia’s history and the massive disinformation operation to rewrite the history of the Holocaust online.
About The Jewish Writers’ Initiative
The Jewish Writers’ Initiative was founded in 2019 by Maimonides Fund and Crystal City Entertainment as a year-long fellowship supporting the development of film and television scripts that tell diverse Jewish stories, with the ultimate goal of launching these projects into the mainstream media marketplace. With the Digital Storytellers Lab, the Initiative expands its reach to digital media platforms, bringing innovative Jewish stories to new audiences in new ways.
The Lab is being directed by BimBam creator Sarah Lefton and arts educator Janine Okmin. It is guided by an Advisory Board including Rabbi David Wolpe, producer Jonathan Rubenstein, Kinetic Energy Entertainment’s Megan Westerby, Tippett Studios’ Corey Rosen, former Sundance Director of Content Liz Nord, Sesame Workshop’s Senior Producer of International Social Impact Estee Bardanashvili, Emmy-winning writer Jay Bushman, Director of Product Marketing for Augmented Reality at Meta Adam Berger, VP of Strategic Impact at PRX Gina James, member of YouTube’s Content Partnerships team Jason Cosgrove, and Jewish literature professor and author Jeremy Dauber of Columbia University.
About Maimonides Fund
Maimonides Fund is a private grantmaking organization that funds in North America and Israel. The Fund is passionate about supporting projects that help the Jewish people grasp their common past and play a role in shaping their shared future.