Honorable Mensch-ins: 7 examples of Jews who changed 5774 for the better

Daniel Offen and Eldad Melamed, faculty members at Tel Aviv University, led a group of researchers in pioneering the first treatment method shown to stabilize ALS patients. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Offen and Eldad Melamed, faculty members at Tel Aviv University, led a group of researchers in pioneering the first treatment method shown to stabilize ALS patients.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s a Jewish tradition to eat apples dipped in honey during Rosh Hashana to encourage a sweet year.
That effort seems to have been in vain last year.
The Jewish year that came to a close in September of 5774 was a chaotic mess: Rockets flew back and forth across the Gaza border. Anti-Semitism flourished in Europe. Economic growth in Israel, across the board, remains tepid.
But no dark cloud is without a silver lining – and no gloomy news day without its uplifting headlines. It may have taken some digging, but here are seven stories of Jewish individuals who bucked the trend of an otherwise bleak year to inspire us in 5774.
Tzvika Bitan
When Operation Protective Edge began, Israel sprang into action, sending supplies and food to soldiers camped at the border.
But the one thing many soldiers needed most in the arid border region – a shower – doesn’t come on wheels.
That is, until Tzvika Bitan came along.
A farmer from a moshav near the Gaza border, Bitan built a portable shower which he hitched to the back of his SUV and drove up and down the front lines, offering hot showers to the soldiers camped there.
While “all of Israel is sending chocolates, food, and clothing,” Bitan told a Channel 10 reporter, he sought to offer soldiers a reprieve from the dry and dusty conditions on the Gaza border.
He seems to have succeeded. Bitan told Channel 10 that nearly half of the approximately 850 soldiers to whom he offered a shower said it ‘was the best of their lives.’
Alice Herz-Sommer
Passersby sometimes used to stop outside Alice Herz-Sommer’s London apartment to listen to the supercentenarian play classical music.
But the melodies alone couldn’t possibly convey the incredible story of that music, of how it helped her survive the Holocaust and enabled her to persevere.
“The Holocaust was part of the journey, but it wasn’t the story,” said Nick Reed, who produced The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, a documentary about her life that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Short Documentary this year. “The story was human spirit.”
Herz-Sommer died in February at 110, having become the world’s oldest survivor of the Holocaust.
The film is available on Netflix.
It tells the story of how she survived the war because her renown as a piano virtuoso compelled the Nazis to let her live. Beyond her life story, it delves into her religious devotion to music and her unshakable optimism.
“It depends on me whether life is good or not,” she tells the camera, sitting in her living room. “On me. Not on life. On me.”
Ariana Handelman and Marc Luban
The only thing more awkward than a 13-yearold is a room full of 13-year-olds attempting to dance to the styling of a cheesy bar mitzva deejay.
So, if nothing else, Illinois teenagers Marc Luban and Ariana Handelman deserve a spot on this list merely for sparing their classmates that grotesque form of ritual teen-torture.
The pair skipped the traditional dance party and instead invited their guests to help build a playground in a Chicago neighborhood less affluent than their own.
“We’re not exactly passing up on a party,” Luban said. “This is our party, basically.”
Luban and Handelman jointly celebrated their bar and bat mitzva last month by venturing from their hometown of Lakeview to neighboring Bronzeville, where playgrounds are less plentiful.
Leading up to the event, the pair and their parents raised $90,000 for supplies and prepared the spot for the facility. They partnered with Bright Star Community Church in Bronzeville and a nonprofit called KaBOOM to coordinate the effort.
Handelman said she hopes their event will inspire a bar-mitzva trend – which could mean bad news for bar-mitzva deejays, hype-men and kosher caterers. But it would be welcome tidings for teens who have been cajoled once too often into attempting the electric slide in front of their entire middle school class.
Daniel Offen and Eldad Melamed
Long before celebrities began dumping ice water on their heads in the name of curing ALS, Tel Aviv University Professors Daniel Offen and Eldad Melamed began working toward a treatment for the neurological disorder.
This year, Israeli startup BrainStorm- Cell Therapeutics began double blind, controlled studies in the United States using their research that Offen said could soon lead to wider commercial use for treating ALS.
In a small study at Hadassah Medical Center, the treatment was shown to stabilize ALS patients who had previously shown a decline in their condition. Offen said this was the first trial in which ALS patients reacted positively in this way.
The treatment – patented under the name NurOwn – begins with the extraction of stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow. Technicians then manipulate the cells in order to “convince them to differentiate to a specific cell type,” Offen explained. Finally, the cells are reintroduced into a patient’s spinal cord or muscle tissue.
At the end of this year’s experiments, the US Food and Drug Administration could either require an expansion of the trial or approve it for commercial use.
Either way, Offen said, ALS patients around the world are taking note of what could soon be the only effective treatment for the debilitating condition.
Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg
Of the 66 Israeli soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge, none attracted as much international attention as Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg.
Carmeli and Steinberg were lone soldiers, members of the Israel Defense Forces who have no immediate family in the country. In their case, this was because they were American nationals: Carmeli from Texas and Steinberg from California.
Lone soldiers illustrate several strong currents in Israeli society: the large number of immigrants to Israel, the international support for the Zionist cause, and the hospitality Israelis extend to newcomers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized Steinberg’s contribution in a letter to his parents, saying he was “a proud Zionist” whose death “touched the hearts of many Israelis.”
Their funerals became international media sensations. Worried attendance would be low, Israelis showed up in their thousands – approximately 30,000 at Carmeli’s Haifa funeral and 20,000 at Steinberg’s, at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.
The IDF estimates that 2,000 lone soldiers currently serve in the military.
Leslie Lobel
Perhaps the only disease that got more attention this year than ALS was Ebola, currently sweeping across several West African nations.
The ghastly virus even generated a scarcity in health volunteers – but it doesn’t seem to have scared off Dr. Leslie Lobel.
Lobel, a senior lecturer at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, travels to Uganda five times a year to study survivors of Ebola, isolating their antibodies in the hopes of a better understanding of the virus.
He told The Jerusalem Post in August that he meets the survivors – not contagious at three months after infection – without masks or covering, to project an air of respect.
“I don’t come in as a stranger to take blood samples and leave,” he told the Post.
With the number of Ebola cases pushing rapidly into the thousands, Lobel’s work has taken on a new, morbid type of prominence.
But nonetheless, his research and outreach remain a bright spot in the otherwise bleak news about the virus.
The Sefaria Project
A far cry from Torah scrolls or leather-bound volumes, Sefaria.org boasts that it is “building the future of Jewish learning in an open and participatory way.”
It acts as a sort of Wikipedia for Jewish texts, allowing the public to contribute translations, interpretations, and links between different chapters and verses. Operating entirely on community contributions, Sefaria is a “non-commercial project, supported by donations from individuals and foundations,” according to the website.
It adds that “because of our people’s quirky weekend and holiday reading habits” it is unlikely to take the place of traditional publishers of Jewish texts. Nonetheless, Sefaria takes Talmud into the digital age, doing for Jewish texts what GitHub did for computer code, or what eBay did for commerce.