The Do-ers

We’re often told what we young Jews don’t do.

We talk about the environment, but still plug in our iPhones (and iPads and computers) each night. We complain about toxic partisanship in government, but don’t turn out to vote. We’re outraged by social inequality, but can’t be bothered to do more than “like” a call to action on Facebook.

If the Do-ers have taught me anything, it’s that all this is just talk.

When we asked readers to submit nominations of young people working to change their communities, we were overwhelmed with responses. They highlight the impressive, and often moving, achievements of Millennials who care enough to change the status quo — and aren’t afraid to put their ideals into action.

The Do-ers.

Like 23-year-old Temimah Zucker, who transformed a woman’s life by helping her overcome anorexia. Or 17-year-old Amram Altzman, who created a gay-straight alliance after bravely coming out at his Orthodox day school. And Rachel Sumekh, 22, who formulated a system to allow fellow California college students to donate their unused dining plan meal points to the homeless.

All across the country, young Jews are working to improve their communities. These are just some of their inspirational stories waiting to be told.

— Anne Cohen

Additional research by Hody Nemes, Rachel Landes and Devra Ferst. These nominations have been edited for style and length.

  1. Simone Bernstein and Jake Bernstein

    AGE: 22 (Simone)/ 20 (Jake) • CITY: St. Louis, Mo.

    Brother and sister duo Simone and Jake have engaged more than 68,500 youth throughout the nation in volunteering at volunTEENnation.org, a youth-led volunteer platform that encourages and coaches youth volunteers using the power of social media to create dynamic programs. These include a music tutoring program for inner-city youth; a free youth-led sports clinics for children on the autism spectrum; an annual youth and family volunteer fair; an after-school STEM Service Learning program; planting vegetable gardens at low-income preschools; offering Teens Teach Tech to older adults, and workshops and grants for youth to host these programs in their own communities. Since 2009, VolunTEENnation.org has raised more than $1,500,000 to donate directly to Autism Speaks, local food banks, military family organizations and to the local children’s museum. Jake volunteered in Ecuador in the summer of 2013, and his experiences led to volunTEENnation.org offering service learning grants to youth studying abroad in developing countries. Jake is also one of the the co-founders of CommuniGift, an online giving platform that offers donors a convenient and meaningful way to give.

    NOMINATED BY: Barbara Rozen

  2. Simone Bernstein and Jake Bernstein

    AGE: 22 (Simone)/ 20 (Jake) • CITY: St. Louis, Mo.

    Brother and sister duo Simone and Jake have engaged more than 68,500 youth throughout the nation in volunteering at volunTEENnation.org, a youth-led volunteer platform that encourages and coaches youth volunteers using the power of social media to create dynamic programs. These include a music tutoring program for inner-city youth; a free youth-led sports clinics for children on the autism spectrum; an annual youth and family volunteer fair; an after-school STEM Service Learning program; planting vegetable gardens at low-income preschools; offering Teens Teach Tech to older adults, and workshops and grants for youth to host these programs in their own communities. Since 2009, VolunTEENnation.org has raised more than $1,500,000 to donate directly to Autism Speaks, local food banks, military family organizations and to the local children’s museum. Jake volunteered in Ecuador in the summer of 2013, and his experiences led to volunTEENnation.org offering service learning grants to youth studying abroad in developing countries. Jake is also one of the the co-founders of CommuniGift, an online giving platform that offers donors a convenient and meaningful way to give.

    NOMINATED BY: Barbara Rozen

  3. Simone Bernstein and Jake Bernstein

    AGE: 22 (Simone)/ 20 (Jake) • CITY: St. Louis, Mo.

    Brother and sister duo Simone and Jake have engaged more than 68,500 youth throughout the nation in volunteering at volunTEENnation.org, a youth-led volunteer platform that encourages and coaches youth volunteers using the power of social media to create dynamic programs. These include a music tutoring program for inner-city youth; a free youth-led sports clinics for children on the autism spectrum; an annual youth and family volunteer fair; an after-school STEM Service Learning program; planting vegetable gardens at low-income preschools; offering Teens Teach Tech to older adults, and workshops and grants for youth to host these programs in their own communities. Since 2009, VolunTEENnation.org has raised more than $1,500,000 to donate directly to Autism Speaks, local food banks, military family organizations and to the local children’s museum. Jake volunteered in Ecuador in the summer of 2013, and his experiences led to volunTEENnation.org offering service learning grants to youth studying abroad in developing countries. Jake is also one of the the co-founders of CommuniGift, an online giving platform that offers donors a convenient and meaningful way to give.

    NOMINATED BY: Barbara Rozen

  4. Temimah Zucker

    AGE: 23 • CITY: Teaneck, N.J.

    Temimah, a survivor of anorexia, started Tikvah: National Eating Disorders Association, an organization helping those who suffer from eating disorders. The first conversation I had with Temimah was over email. I had read an article about her triumph over anorexia and wrote to her, telling her that she was a liar — she couldn’t possibly be cured! Because I have struggled for nine years now, and I know that this horrific disease can never go away. Surprisingly she wrote back, not angry or hurt by my accusations. We began communicating more, until I finally got to meet her in person. Temimah made me feel normal. I’m only one of many that Temimah has touched and impacted. She runs sessions, support groups, speaks about body image and awareness at schools and community functions, and provides sufferers with resources and support. Someone who can conquer anorexia can conquer the world!

    NOMINATED BY: Shirah Lichtman

  5. Zach Azrael

    AGE: 17 • CITY: Baltimore, Md.

    In the spring of his sophomore year, when Zach was the Beth Tfiloh’s chapter of the National Honor Society VP of service projects (he is now president), he created the Tutoring Outreach program, which allows NHS members to tutor and mentor children in the Baltimore U.S. Dream Academy, an after-school outreach program for children with an incarcerated family member. Zach recruited more than 30 NHS members as mentors. He developed the tutoring program, which includes a reading and writing group, a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] program, a technology group and a pen-pal initiative with children in Uganda. He succeeded in raising money, collecting books so that the academy would have a 2,200-book library and is coordinating summer interns for the Dream Academy so that the children will have a summer program to attend for the first time. The 80 children of the Dream Academy have had a more positive and meaningful program as a direct result of Zach’s work, and the program has forged a bond between Baltimore’s Jewish and African-American communities. Zach was recently honored by Terry Hickey, president and CEO of the Chesapeake area Big Brothers Big Sisters, as one of the organization’s 25 Champions of Mentoring.

    NOMINATED BY: Halaine Steinberg

  6. Avigayil Halpern

    AGE: 17 • CITY: New York, N.Y.

    Avigayil has worked throughout her high school career to create spiritual opportunities not typically afforded to young female students in Orthodox day schools. She is one of the few documenting her struggles in being able to wear tzitzit and don tefillin every day. She is also the founder and editor of V’Tzivanu, a blog where she and other women discuss issues surrounding their wearing of tzitzit and donning of tefillin. She is part of only a known handful of young women in Modern Orthodox communities who are joining in this much larger conversation, and is paving the way for other Modern Orthodox women to take on more public roles in their communities. Through her writing, she raises visibility for young women, and is redefining the narrative with which we, in traditional Jewish communities, talk about women in ritual and public religious life.

    NOMINATED BY: Amram Altzman

  7. Alexandra Katz

    AGE: 24 • CITY: New York, N.Y.

    Alex helped create The Focus Forward Project, a 12-week course designed to provide both an intellectual and emotional outlet for federal inmates awaiting trial or sentencing. Small class sizes allow for the creation of a community, while a variety of tools give participants the confidence in themselves to take charge of their lives. Those in the program closely read and discuss a book, keep a journal and learn life skills, such as creating a résumé, public speaking, and conflict resolution. The goal is to help these individuals believe in their own abilities and their right to a better life. Her motto is simple: Treat inmates like human beings. Give them the potential to succeed, and they will. Today the program has three graduating classes at two facilities, and both men and women participate.The goal is to expand across the country and create Focus Forward Project re-entry centers to assist graduates once they are released from prison.

    NOMINATED BY: Kim Stone

  8. Rachel Sumekh

    AGE: 22 • CITY: Los Angeles, Calif.

    Rachel Sumekh is the founding executive director of Swipes for the Homeless, a national not-for-profit that allows university students to donate their unused meal points to support food-insecure individuals in their local community. In 2013, her organization — which has a strong presence on several Southern California campuses, including UCLA, USC and UC Santa Barbara — donated more than $110,000 and engaged more than 2,000 students in giving. She is also an American Jewish World Service Global Justice fellow, where she organizes her Los Angeles community to advocate for global human rights. And she is a fellow with 30 Years After, a civic action organization whose mission it is to promote participation by Iranian-American Jews in civic, political and Jewish life in Los Angeles, and has led events for hundreds of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles to engage with electoral candidates.

    NOMINATED BY: Herself

  9. Yoav Schaefer

    AGE: 26 • CITY: Santa Barbara, Caiif.

    Following his twin brother’s death, Harvard undergrad Yoav Schaefer founded the Avi Schaefer Fund, dedicated to promoting discussion about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on North American college campuses. His organization has sponsored Avi Shabbats, whereby Jews and Muslims on campus eat together and get to know one another. Yoav has attended four symposiums in Israel and America and brought some of the biggest names in the Jewish community together to discuss peace. Other initiatives include fundamentally changing the climate of partisanship and othering so prevalent in the Jewish community today.

    NOMINATED BY: Derek Kwait

  10. Francesca Garrett

    AGE: 26 • CITY: San Antonio, TX

    Francesca came to the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio four years ago as a volunteer. Today, serving as one of the youngest museum directors in the country, she gives a voice to the millions lost during the Holocaust and to the inspirational legacies of those who survived. Under her guidance, the museum has expanded its programming to encompass modern genocides and mass atrocities, community activism and even classroom bullying, all while staying grounded in the history of the Holocaust. Francesca has quadrupled the number of students visiting the museum, bringing lessons of tolerance to more than 20,000 students across San Antonio. She’s also doubled the number of artifacts held in the museum’s collection, creating free mini-exhibits throughout the city in partnership with the local public library system. Programs with local battered women’s shelters and the local refugee community offer inspiration to others who have experienced abuse and relocation, while art and essay contests with low-resource local schools offer outlets for creativity — and much needed art supplies.

    NOMINATED BY: Juana Rubalcava

  11. Stan Rosenberg

    AGE: 21 • CITY: Scarsdale, N.Y.

    Stan Rosenberg has made it his mission to spread the positive benefits of travel to those less fortunate. In 2008, at the age of 15, Stan started Trip of a Lifetime, a student-run not-for-profit organization that empowers underprivileged students to become catalysts for change in their communities through summer travel experiences. Since its inception, Trip of a Lifetime has raised $350,000 and has provided travel scholarships for 44 students from across the country. For many of these students, it is their first time on a plane or in a hotel. As a result of their trips, students have volunteered at soup kitchens, mentored others at their schools and have even started not-for-profit organizations of their own. Currently, Stan is expanding Trip of a Lifetime’s mission by training 16 students to become social entrepreneurs. Trip of a Lifetime has forged partnerships with more than two dozen New York City high schools and is recognized for its efforts by the New York City Department of Education.

    NOMINATED BY: Himself

  12. Rachel Smith

    AGE: 26 • CITY: Brooklyn, N.Y.

    As the force behind And You Shall Tell, Rachel Smith is mapping the diversity of Jewish New York. Through interviews and portrait photography, she explores what it means to be Jewish today and how this is changing. Interviewees range from a Ladino rock singer to a Modern Orthodox arts activist to queer Yiddishists. As a part of this project, Rachel has launched holiday story slams. These slams gather 35 to 50 Jews from diverse New York communities in a Brooklyn living room to share thematic tales — stories of freedom for Passover, and revelation for Shavuot. Now a program associate in education at the Jewish Community Project, she is planning to expand to educational programming in oral history workshops and Jewish storytelling this fall.

    NOMINATED BY: Herself

  13. Joel Wool

    AGE: 26 • CITY: Dorchester, Mass.

    Joel Wool co-founded Boston’s first Winter Farmers’ Market and serves as a board member of a years-long effort to bring a worker-and-community-owned affordable grocery store to the neighborhood. He has partnered with Harvard School of Public Health and Boston College to bring air quality forums, as well as research and community education projects, to the area, and served as a key policy adviser on sustainability issues for Boston mayor Marty Walsh during and after his campaign. Responding to the growing body of research on gas pipeline leaks and the consequences of our aging infrastructure, he worked with the academic community, fellow environmental advocates, labor unions and neighborhood activists to enact meaningful pipeline leak repair and replacement legislation. He has mobilized hundreds around healthy food, and changed energy law and policy that affects thousands in Massachusetts.

    NOMINATED BY: Himself

  14. Amram Altzman

    AGE: 19 • CITY: New York, N.Y.

    Amram was the first to found a gay-straight alliance-type club at an Orthodox day school when he created the Sexuality, Identity, and Society club at the Ramaz School, in New York City. He is one of the very few Orthodox day school students who have come out during their time in high school. As a blogger at New Voices and The Times of Israel, Amram writes about issues faced by the observant queer community. In addition to concrete advocacy work, his most significant impact has been through his visibility. In his writing, Amram regularly challenges the observant community to move beyond platitudes to create true acceptance of and community for queer Jews. He remains one of few young Orthodox day school graduates who is out and vocal, and in this role he serves as a model for countless young LGBTQ+ teens in observant circles.

    NOMINATED BY: Avigayil Halpern

  15. Della Kurzer-Zlotnick

    AGE: 18 • CITY: St. Paul, Minn.

    Last year, Della Kurzer-Zlotnick gave her moms a special Mother’s Day present: the ability to marry in their home state of Minnesota. Guided by her love for her moms and by Judaism’s strong tradition of social justice, Della became a key leader for marriage equality with the Jewish social justice organization Jewish Community Action. She used innovative tactics, including a series of YouTube videos, to show young people how they could make a difference in their state even before they could vote. When marriage equality became law in 2013, Della turned her attention to passing a much-needed anti-bullying law. She became a key spokeswoman for the campaign, speaking at rallies and in the local media. Della drew on her personal story of experiencing bullying as the child of two moms to carry a simple message: “Bullying shouldn’t be a milestone. It shouldn’t be a part of childhood.” Della’s message — and her countless hours spent lobbying, organizing key events for students and more — worked. Minnesota passed the law, and Della was there when it happened. Through these crucial victories, Della has made Minnesota a better state.

    NOMINATED BY: Nora Kassner

  16. Lev Hirschhorn

    AGE: 24 • CITY: Philadelphia, Pa. (previously in Chicago)

    For the past three years, Lev has worked as an organizer with SOUL — Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, on the South Side and South Suburbs of Chicago. He organized people in their churches and block clubs and community centers to take action on numerous key issues facing Chicago’s Southland. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was shutting down more than 50 neighborhood schools, Lev co-founded Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools, an organization driven by Jewish values to push back on the agenda of privatizing the city’s public school system. Growing up, Lev heard stories about his grandparents, refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, and he learned that organizing for power is our only hope. The consequences of staying out of the fight are too great. As commanded in the book of Vayikra, he will not stand idle.

    NOMINATED BY: Himself

  17. Hannah Kapnick

    AGE: 26 • CITY: Boulder, Colo.

    Hannah Kapnik has a remarkable combination of radiant warmth, grace and skill in organizing peers, and a passion for making accessible the intersections of Jewish thought and modern values. As a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, Hannah generated enthusiasm in her cohort and the broader Hadar community. Since that year, she has built a Jewish community centered on spiritual life and practice in Boulder, Colorado. She has organized three Tefilah Retreats, weekend-long prayer retreats of Jewish spiritual practice and community building for young adults in the Boulder area. She also directed the Boulder Jewish Community Commons Goat Co-op, working for sustainability and environmental awareness in her community. In addition to cultivating local community, Hannah is working on multiple projects enriching Jewish life in communities nationwide. She is using new media to bring more people into Jewish conversations as a co-founder of Come & Listen, a Jewish podcast that bridges traditional and progressive Jewish thought. She is also collaborating with musician Alicia Jo Rabins in creating curriculum on biblical women that employs visual art, music and midrash.

    NOMINATED BY: Elie Kaunfer

Author

Anne Cohen

Anne Cohen

Anne Cohen is the Forward’s deputy digital media editor. When she’s not looking for the secret Jewish history of Voodoo in New Orleans, or making lists about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she writes for The Assimilator. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an M.S. magazine concentration in 2012.

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