Not many 17-year-olds have received a presidential endorsement from a New York Times columnist, but Talia Leman has. Nicholas Kristof gave her his vote for the 2044 race when he learned at an awards dinner about her work helping kids like herself raise money for causes including a school in rural Cambodia and wells in African villages.
It all started after Hurricane Katrina, when Leman was inspired to trick-or-treat “for coins instead of candy,” and inspired others to do the same, to the tune of $10 million for storm victims. Then she started RandomKid, an organization that advises about 12 million children on how to find a cause, fundraise for it and donate the money in such a way that they can see its impact. Her book — “A Random Book About the Power of Anyone” — came out in late September.
Now the high school senior, who hails from town near Des Moines, Iowa, and says her Jewish identity is based largely on her many summers at Camp Ramah in California, is applying to college — and seeking an active Hillel.
Q: What was it like growing up Jewish in Iowa?
A: It’s definitely difficult in Iowa to explain [being Jewish] to people. I know that as I got older it wasn’t something that you’d necessarily bring up, because people did view you differently. That was something that was really hard.
How have you connected to the Jewish world outside Iowa?
I went to Camp Ramah starting the summer after fifth grade. Living in Iowa, we don’t have a large Jewish population, so Camp Ramah that’s the only Jewish identity that I have. It’s a month of my life where I can be Jewish and not have to worry about anything else. Camp Ramah is almost how I define myself as being Jewish. ... I also spoke at TribeFest (the Jewish Federations of North America’s convention for 20- and 30somethings). That was the first time I had spoken with a large Jewish audience ... it felt so much like a family.
Many Jewish activists trace their social justice work to the notion of tikkun olam, or fixing the world. Do you?
Tikkun olam isn’t the first thing that would pop out of my mouth. It might have something to do with the fact that I didn’t have a strong Jewish education. I had a bat mitzvah but didn’t go to Hebrew school consistently. ... Motivations come from so many different places for people. People [say], “You must be a compassionate person,” but I don’t describe myself as a compassionate person. It’s just that desire to solve the problem.
Your father’s father fought in the Polish resistance during World War II and made it through the war because he didn’t “look” Jewish. How has he influenced you?
I guess because he went through so much I expected him to be a bitter person ... but he’s one of the most grateful and most kind people that I know. Whenever we went out to dinner, or went shopping, his credit card was always the first one on the table, and I’d ask why and he’d say, “Because I can.”
Can you talk about your brother’s role in your work? He helped attract attention to your Katrina effort, because as an adorable 6-year-old he said he “opposed it” and your family let him speak his mind on national TV.
My brother Zander is 13, and he has something like an autism spectrum disorder. But he’s so genuine in who he is, and that’s something that’s so hard to find in people. When he’s upset, he’s upset. When he’s happy, he’s happy. You’ll know. He’s not going to hide anything.
How did your initial experience with fundraising, for Hurricane Katrina victims, help shape RandomKid?
When I finished the project, I knew we raised a lot of money, and it went to help. But I didn’t know exactly what happened to it, and that was something that kind of bothered me. So when we started RandomKid, we developed criteria [for each] project. Everything has to be tangible. Kids have to be able to say, “I put this pump, in this community,” to pinpoint that on a map.
This is an edited transcript.