Julie Yaker

by David Zenlea

Start-up culture has a buzzword for everything. Why be a smart person with a good idea when you can instead be a “thought leader” with a “disruptive innovation”? Why look for customers when you can have “early adopters” who latch on to your “freemium” content?

There does not, however, seem to be a translation in start-up vernacular for hamish. So, Yiddish will have to suffice to describe the appeal of Jlive, a start-up being piloted here in Metro Detroit that aims to reinvent how Jewish organizations put on events. (Think: OpenTable for the Jewish community and you’re not far off.) Its down-home vibe is largely a credit to Julie Yaker, who heads up sales for Jlive but seems to take seriously the title in her email signature — “Person in Charge of Happiness.”

Julie gets ready for a party she’s putting on through her company Eyecatcher Events

“I knew nothing about start-ups. I knew events and I knew our Jewish community. I knew the people in the rooms at the different buildings, I have the relationships,” said Yaker. 

Indeed, chances are good that if you’re reading this you already know Yaker or, at the very least, have interacted with her work, whether you’ve attended a JBaby class (which she started) or gone to a fundraiser or Bar Mitzvah she’s put on through her company, EyeCatcher Events.

Jlive may be less familiar to you. An initiative of Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and Federation CJA of Montreal, it launched in August 2020 and is still, per Yaker, in its “beta” phase. The JCC of Metro Detroit is also a key stakeholder and leader in the project, and the organization sees Jlive as a core aspect of its programming strategy. Today, some 25,000 people have already used Jlive to register for more than 500 events hosted by more than 125 organizations, from JFamily and Aish to Temple Shir Shalom and Motor City USY. A more concerted rollout to users and expansion to other cities is already in the offing. The goal, in the coming months and years, is to become the one-stop shop for people looking to know what’s happening in the Jewish community and — through aggregated and anonymized data — to help organizations better understand what sort of programming those people desire.

Visit Jlive at jlive.app

“The real power of Jlive is in our ability to empower organizations to improve their programming and create more successful and enriching opportunities for Jewish people and their friends of all ages to enjoy,” explained Zach Weisman, head of product for Jlive. 

Young Adult programs featured on Jlive.app

Yaker, affable and disinclined to speak in tech jargon, professes to dwell little on the Big Data possibilities of Jlive and more on the day-to-day ways it can make the community she’s lived in all her life more accessible to everyone, in good times and bad.

“I have teens, and they’re going through a really bad week right now. The fact that there’s something for me to log onto to get help, and that our community even creates such events, is amazing,” she said. (Yaker was interviewed the week of the Oxford High School shooting, to which JFS, We Need To Talk and the Jewish Community Center’s JTeen team, among others, responded with emergency outreach programming.) “And then the fact that there’s a place now where people can go to find it. You don’t have to know who’s hosting what.”

We sat down with Yaker at Federation headquarters to learn more about Jlive, as well as her journey in the Jewish community and how she, in her own hamish way, epitomizes the start-up mentality. 

“I like change”

I thrive on reinventing my career. I’ve worked at a PR agency downtown. Then I completed a 12-month master’s program at Michigan, student-taught in Detroit, and worked as an elementary teacher in Bloomfield Hills. It was so enriching. I stopped when my daughter Alexandra was born. 

In 2006, when my dad passed away, Hebrew Free Loan asked me if I wanted to take his spot on the board. I thought, “This is a way to honor his values—he just believed in giving back.”

I really got involved with Federation because I was invited to go on the Grosfeld Leadership Program. Then — it was actually in this building — I heard Judy Lobel speaking about a new program they were thinking about starting here for new parents. I went up to Jeff Lasday and I said, “I am the person you are going to hire for this program.” And I ended up getting this job as the first director of JBaby Detroit.

Julie and her son at a JFamily event back in 2013

I did that for a couple of years. I worked with the team at Federation, and we created the structure, the classes, the logo, the name, the whole thing. I loved it. But then, you know, along the way, I’d been having people ask me to help them plan their events, and I’d always wanted to have my own company. So I opened EyeCatcher events. I plan corporate, now mostly nonprofit, and bar and bat mitzvahs. I planned Israel@70 downtown, and, this past October, I did JARC’s cool Rick Springfield fundraiser.

The event planning is still going on, but I’ve hit pause on taking new clients.  Jlive has quickly become a full-time role. I still have plenty of events to keep me busy, but my 3 kids are getting older. My daughter Allie is in college, my son Noah is a Senior in high school and Levi is in 8th grade. I enjoy spending time with them on the weekends, especially if it’s a Michigan football weekend.

Jlive…everything rolled up into one.

In summer 2020, I was talking to some friends, Scott Kaufman, Brian Siegel, Ted Cohen and Robert Wolfe. They told me about their new project — Jlive. I thought, “OK, I don’t know what this is.” But I knew it had to do with events, with the Jewish community, and that — like Jbaby — there was an education component. So it seemed like everything (I had done) rolled up into one. 

So I started working on Jlive in August 2020. There are three full-time staff members. Zach (Weisman, head of product), myself, and a director in Montreal. (There’s also a team of developers who report to Weisman.) I also recently recruited Becky Melamed, former Director of PJ Library. We started putting events on Jlive in January 2021, and now people are really using it and really registering with it. And organizations are trusting us to put events on it.  

You create this community for people that they didn’t know they needed.

Jlive is like a combination of Open Table and Eventbrite for the Jewish community. It gives organizations a really quick way to set up something. Even today, there was a program put on by Jewish Family Service and a few other organizations on how to talk to your teen about the (Oxford High School) tragedy. It takes five minutes to put the event on Jlive and put it out there, and people register. 

I do think, really soon, it will be the place to go to find things. (Right now) it’s a little bit like when Jbaby started. We had to call 10 people and say, “Are you pregnant? You want to be in this class.” And you create this community for people that they didn’t know they needed.  

When you go on Jlive right now you can see there are family events, there’s teen events and young adult events. We’re going to continue to grow those. We’re going to have Jewish learning events. Eventually, it will filter for you based on what your interests are — you can currently create a profile where you put in your interests. 

And so many people are using it already and don’t even know it. If you go to the website for Adat Shalom — one of our really early adopters — and sign up for an event, you’re using Jlive. We’ll plan to start pushing for users to sign up for their own personal accounts in the first quarter of 2022, which is right around the corner.

It is really geared toward everybody. The goal is for everyone to find what they need. The only thing that has really slowed all the different niches is the pandemic. 

The customer is the whole Detroit Jewish community. 

The Yaker Family enjoys some Top Golf at son Levi’s Bar Mitzvah

I grew up here. I’m the oldest of three girls. My parents, my family, are here. My husband Daniel (yes, he is a twin) is one of four boys. We’re all here. There’s a lot of us. I have been very lucky to have a group of supportive family and friends. We have been raising our kids together. I have always believed that it takes a village, and I envision Jlive as a tool for our larger Jewish village. 

Everything I’ve done is community based. I don’t think I realized it until recently. You’re planning Israel@70, it’s for the whole Jewish community… a Bat Mitzvah, it’s for members of our community.

Someone recently said to me, “So it’s like your customer is the whole Detroit Jewish community.” And yes, the customer is really the whole Detroit Jewish community.