By Cindy Mindell
NEW YORK, N.Y. – You may have seen the video on YouTube this month, a sassy three-minute pitch by comedians and actors for American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Nearly one million hits later, the video has catapulted the relief organization to rock-star status among non-profits.
One of those responsible for the production is Rob Schlissel, an Orange native who graduated from MAKOM Hebrew High School of Greater New Haven just six short years ago. At the time, Sydney Perry, now CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, was principal of the school. “He was always a creative kid,” she says, “and the video is, as kids say, awesome!”
Schlissel graduated in 2004 from Amity High School in Woodbridge and the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, where he majored in theater. He was a student at MAKOM from 8th grade through high school. While there, Schlissel says that one of his favorite teachers was Rabbi Reena Judd, and one of his most memorable courses was a circus class where he learned unicycling. Schlissel took several trips to Israel with family and on Birthright before spending a year in Jerusalem, studying at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and David Shapell’s College for Jewish Studies.
Now, Schlissel is a producer with Empire Entertainment, focusing on developing business within Jewish and Israeli organizations and companies. Empire is based in New York and Tokyo and works around the world. While coordinating the Video about AJWS, his team came up with the idea to make a short film with a celebrated filmmaker.
“When we told this to Judd Apatow, he came up with the idea to make a funny piece of all different types of people coming together to say why they support AJWS,” Schlissel says. The film would premiere at the gala and then go viral on the Internet.
AJWS works to fight hunger, poverty, and disease throughout the developing world. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake earlier this year, the organization raised more money than its Jewish humanitarian counterparts, and has remained in the country to focus on ongoing development and rebuilding.
The humorous script is the work of Los Angeles-based writer Jordan Rubin, and features 20 of today’s best-known celebrities; five others signed on but couldn’t synch their schedules, Schlissel says. In scripted and ad-libbed lines, the participants deliver a mix of factual information about AJWS’s work, appeals for donations, and irreverent comments. “The American Jewish World Service. That is an awful name,” quips actress Helen Hunt, after listing a number of humanitarian efforts.
After the video debuted at the Oct. 28 gala, it was released to the rest of the world. A week later, at the Jewish Federations of North America annual General Assembly, “everyone was talking about it,” Schlissel says. “The video has helped to rebrand AJWS as a fun and creative organization, and it’s brought public awareness about its work to a new level.”
The first version of the video was released on FunnyOrDie.com, then was picked up by YouTube. Together, the two sites have attracted more than 800,000 hits and the video is featured on more than 100 blogs, including Jewcy.com, Huffington Post, and the New York Post.
“AJWS is able to track the web traffic and donations from the viewers of the video, and the increased exposure and web traffic have been successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Schlissel says. “The purpose was to draw more attention to an organization that has been doing incredible work around the world for 25 years. The response to the video has been very successful in bringing them into the limelight.”
Watch the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQTtMXZs2LA