Fostering ‘tikkun olam’ among America’s Jewish teens

Love in action: Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards grants Jewish teens $36,000 each for volunteer service projects that embody the spirit of tikkun olam.

2012 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipients  390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
2012 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipients 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For as long as I can remember, the spirit of tikkun olam, a central Jewish value meaning to “repair the world,” has been a pivotal force in my life. It has helped me see the world with compassion and clarity and has led me on a magnificent journey. Six years ago it became the animating force behind the creation of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
This annual award, which grants five Jewish teens $36,000 each for volunteer service projects that embody the spirit of tikkun olam, was inspired by watching my own children and their friends as they developed an awareness of the world and people around them. As my children grew up and had families of their own, they encouraged me to act ever more fully on my guiding principle, that it is never too late, too early or too often to give back and make the world a better place. That’s how the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards began.
Over the years, the award has recognized remarkably varied projects. It is truly inspiring to see the Jewish values that today’s teens are putting into action, from bikur cholim, or visiting the sick to tzedakah, or justice, though sometimes translated as charity.
They are embracing the spirit of tikkun olam to turn love into action everywhere: in their classrooms, on our beaches and oceans, in hospitals, in underprivileged communities in the US and overseas. They see solutions at every turn! The 30 teens we have celebrated since 2007 are shining examples of the impact each of us can have. We are moved every year not only by these teens’ creativity and dedication, but also by how their Jewish identity informs their volunteerism and helps them develop as leaders.
But could we do more? This question came up recently for the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. Until now, the award has been centered on California teens.
Imagine, we thought, if we could reach out to all 50 US states and empower teens from coast-to-coast. And that’s just what we’re going to do.
Later this month, we will officially announce the national expansion of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, and launch a 2013 call-for-nominations campaign. We’ll be working with the Jewish Federations of North America and their network of 155 Jewish Federations throughout the country to get the word out as well.
This year’s Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipients tackled big issues like bullying, academic achievement, and bringing aid to struggling Israeli communities. Their words and project descriptions, included below, are a testament to what can happen when a young person, filled with the spirit of tikkun olam, decides to make a difference.
I invite you to read and share these inspiring stories in your own communities, and to encourage you and your teens to let us know about their vision for repairing the world.
We all share the responsibility of fostering the next generation and instilling values that move our world and humanity forward. Do you know a teen who is working to repair the world?
Zak Kukoff – “We bring students together to build understanding and friendships.”
Zak founded Autism Ambassadors after seeing his autistic cousin ostracized and alienated in the classroom. Moved by her experience, he created this peer-led program to foster friendships between students with and without autism, and to teach autistic students social, emotional and academic skills.
Zak’s program is in more than 25 schools across the country, and he will be releasing his first book, The Autism Ambassadors’ Handbook, later this fall.
Joe Langerman – “Be a part of the solution to end hatred and embrace tolerance in our lives.”
Joe stood up to hate by starting Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance. He surveyed his peers to prove the prevalence of bullying, successfully petitioned his school board to change policies, and engaged his peers through new school curricula and community showings of solidarity. Joe has helped combat and minimize bullying at his school, and is paying it forward by establishing chapters at surrounding high schools.
Daniel Rosenthal – “Magic takes you on adventures – without you ever having to leave your seat, hospital bed or wheelchair.”
As an eight-year-old, Daniel began performing magic tricks for children and adults in the hospital. Inspired by the healing power of laughter, he coordinates volunteer magicians and magic shows in hospitals, schools and rehabilitation and assisted living centers across the country. With volunteers all over the nation and a prestigious Board of Advisors, Daniel – who aspires to be a medical doctor – is strategically expanding Magic is Medicine and plans to establish an international branch in Israel.
Adam Weinstein – “Sparking students’ interest in math and science enriches their lives and betters our world.”
Adam’s love for math and science encouraged him to share his passion with underprivileged fifth-graders in Los Angeles by developing fun, handson and creative activities – setting them up to succeed in two vital subjects. Archimedes Learning operates in three Los Angeles schools with four volunteer teachers. Adam plans to expand within California and ultimately across the United States.Celine Yousefzadeh – “Through fashion, we can engage and empower students to take immediate action to help Israel.”
Celine felt a responsibility to help students in Sderot, Israel, after Gaza Strip rocket attacks devastated their high school.
She began a student-run fashion show charity event, which turns hundreds of students each year into planners, models and philanthropists raising money for Israeli charities. The annual show is the most successful fundraiser in the high school’s history and Celine is working to implement Fashion with Compassion in Jewish schools across the nation.The writer is President of the Helen Diller Family Foundation.