Shmuly Yanklowitz, 26
Rabbinical student trumpets social justice among Orthodox
As the only Orthodox Jew on social justice trips to India and El Salvador, Shmuly Yanklowitz felt lonely. So the rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah launched Uri L’Tzedek (“Awaken to Justice”; http://uriltzedek.webnode.com), which aims to educate and inspire the American Orthodox community to engage in pressing social justice causes on a global scale. “Social justice has been branded as a solely liberal pursuit, so the Orthodox distance themselves,” he says. “Very little attention is addressed to the notions of chesed and tzedek.” Uri L’Tzedek’s goal is to protest apathy, while encouraging people to think about their domestic and global responsibility.
In addition to creating educational programming for day schools and organizing volunteer missions for college students, Uri L’Tzedek organizes monthly study sessions focused on issues such as workers’ rights, healthcare, and domestic violence. Attendees not only wrestle with Jewish texts, but also encounter — and aid — the affected population. Past events include a clothing drive for impoverished Dominicans living in Washington Heights.
Yanklowitz’s goal is to become a pulpit rabbi at the helm of a synagogue “known for serious social change,” as well as a university professor (he’s currently a Ph.D. student in epistemology and development psychology at Columbia). “I believe that in the next 20 years, social justice will be the most compelling force in re-engaging Modern Orthodox 20- and 30-year-olds,” he says.
Claim to fame: Yanklowitz says that he inspired the invention of washable magic markers. As a 3-year-old, he drew all over the walls. “These should be washable,” remarked his (slightly annoyed) father, then a senior executive at Crayola. And they soon were. Stay tuned: Yanklowitz will be featured in “The Calling,” a PBS documentary about religious leadership
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, 32
Social justice maven for fair housing
At first she thought she would explore her passion for social justice as a journalist, but eventually Jill Jacobs decided to become a rabbi, uniting her love of writing, learning, teaching and leading in one career path. During her first year of rabbinical school at JTS, Jacobs got involved in a tenant organization in Harlem. “It was physically close, but emotionally and spiritually worlds apart.” Hoping to merge her two interests, she began to study Jewish texts that speak to landlord/tenant issues, which led to new ways of thinking about social justice.
The issue of social justice, she believes, was not central to the communal agenda when Jacobs entered rabbinical school in 1998; today, she meets with current JTS rabbinical students monthly who are interested in making social justice a focus of their rabbinates. “[There is] always the sense that the world we’re living in isn’t how it’s supposed to be, and it’s hard to take Judaism seriously and be satisfied with what’s around us,” she says about the connection between Judaism and justice. “There’s a search among young people for meaning that’s not just about continuity, continuing the Jewish people because we were killed in the Holocaust [or because of] the State of Israel,” she continues. “If Judaism’s going to be meaningful we have to engage in the world.”
She is currently rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice, where she speaks, writes and develops programs around wages, housing, healthcare and related issues. And a teshuva she wrote about living wages and unions for Conservative institutions is making its way through the Conservative Law Committee, coming up for a vote at the end of this month. She is also writing a book about Jewish social justice.
Business Savvy: Jacobs designed T-shirts that say, “This is what a rabbi looks like”; they’ve been selling well. (www.cafepress.com/womanrabbi) Civil Disobedience: Once got kicked out of the General Assembly for doing street theater in the hallway.
— Carolyn Slutsky
Ronit Avni, 30
Directed film on Israeli-Palestinian situation to make viewers ‘uncomfortable’
Ronit Avni firmly believes in the power of new media to influence the political and social landscape. While working for Witness, musician Peter Gabriel’s human rights organization, Avni assisted filmmakers from around the world in producing short videos and online video advocacy features on human rights in Honduras, land access in Brazil and women’s rights in Burkina Faso. In 2003, she decided to devote her video expertise to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and founded Just Vision (justvision.org).
“In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no shortage of documentation of human rights violations,” she told The Jewish Week. What wasn’t being documented was the effort on both sides to end the conflict without violence.
Avni, along with three other women from a variety of backgrounds, created the documentary Encounter Point, which follows two Israelis and two Palestinians as they attempt to confront and combat the issues that keep their communities apart while dealing with the pain of all they’ve lost to the fighting.
Since the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, it has won multiple awards and will shown in more than 150 cities worldwide. Just Vision has developed guides for the film to prepare schools and communities to lead discussion groups about it; it has also received a letter of endorsement from the Israeli Education Ministry. The film’s audience continues to grow.
“I hope people walk away both moved and uncomfortable,” Avni said, because the film “challenges stereotypes.”
Another way Just Vision is hoping to accomplish this is its Online Network for Peace, an educational resource that provides both the stories of Israelis and Palestinians engaged in nonviolent conflict resolution efforts and a series of short films focusing on individuals trying to change their circumstances.
“We want to help communities learn about these issues in a non-divisive way, through a problem-solving lens,” she said. “We’re using a different approach, not a singular narrative or simply patting the Jewish or Arab community on the back. We’re pushing the boundaries in a respectful way.”
Fun fact: Avni studied theater directing in college, and directed a theater company in her native Montreal before coming to the U.S. Favorite food: “Pumpkin anything, a great irony since I didn’t grow up in America.”
— Randi Sherman
Amanda Bilski, 16
Giving young teens an opportunity to volunteer
In the summer of 2005, Amanda Bilski watched the devastation of Hurricane Katrina unfold on her television screen. She was itching to partake in the relief effort but felt disempowered by her young age.
And so, at the start of her sophomore year at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y., Bilski teamed up with friend Aaron Marcus and began meeting with representatives from the UJA-Federation of New York, who agreed to sponsor an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans, attracting 23 teens and their parents.
After the trip, the volunteers decided to continue working as a group. So Bilski and Marcus officially established J-Teen Community Service Leadership Program (jteen.org), a UJA-affiliated community service group for Jewish teens.
Through word of mouth, their numbers began to explode. They recently had to divide more than 200 members into Northern and Lower Westchester chapters, led by separate executive boards.
This past winter break, Bilski led J-Teen members and their families on a mission to Cuba, where they brought medical supplies, Judaica and clothing to the three synagogue communities in Havana.
Bilski, now a high school senior, will attend Washington University in St. Louis this fall, where she plans to major in chemistry and become a doctor.
“I need to learn how to sleep more,” she says, chuckling.
To other aspiring teen leaders, Bilski suggests that they think of themselves as today’s leaders, as opposed to merely leaders of the next generation, as many adults would say.
“Teens who want to make a difference have the ability to make a difference,” she said. “If you really put your mind to something, it can be accomplished.”
Jill of all trades: Bilski played for her high school’s varsity tennis team, co-founded the KlezKidz Klezmer Band, and is a news writer for her school paper, the Horace Greeley Tribune. The next Einstein? Bilski is currently researching ciliary neurotrophic factor, a drug originally designed to treat Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Sivan Achor, 29
Bringing Israeli solar technology to African villages
Sivan Achor caught her first glimpse of poverty seven years ago. The French-born Israeli was working for a jeans manufacturing company and had to visit factories in Madagascar for quality assurance. What she saw shocked her.
“Women and children were begging for food and water along the road to the factory,” she says, her eyes pulsing with energy. Then she rattles off stats: “Women spend six hours a day fetching dirty water, gathering wood, and manually processing grain. Forty percent of the population is illiterate. And Africa suffers from severe droughts.”
Africa has plenty of water — but it’s underground. Energy is needed to pump it. And energy, as anyone filling up a gas tank knows, is expensive. Unless it’s solar energy. Sunlight is free.
In September, Achor founded Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA), a nonprofit organization that installs Israeli solar panels in African rural villages. The panels not only enhance the Israeli economy, but also provide energy to pump 25 liters of water per day per person for a community of 1,000 people in Africa. JHA has already begun projects in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda. In addition to providing clean water for human, livestock and irrigation purposes, JHA also installs solar panels in medical clinics to power refrigerators for storing medicines and vaccines. The organization also plans to install electricity in schools to power radios, TVs and computers.
“There are 936 million people living in Africa and only a small portion — 20 percent — have electricity,” she says. “We’re trying to change that.”
The next Suze Orman? In 2005, Achor hosted her own show about real estate development on public access television. The show is called “Real Time Real Estate TV with Sivan Achor” (www.rtre.tv). Israeli, and proud of it: Currently a student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, Achor founded the Israeli Student Life group under the umbrella of Hillel.
Ari Teman, 26
Pioneering “social volunteering” among young, Jewish professionals
Ari Teman was tired of meeting the same group of people at parties. So he founded JCorps, the largest non-denominational Jewish volunteer organization on the continent, open exclusively to 18- to 28-year-olds. The only restriction? That they be single. (But they’re not singles events, he stresses. “We discourage that air of desperation.”)
JCorps volunteers meet, typically on Sundays, to feed the hungry at soup kitchens and food banks and entertain senior citizens at old-age homes and hospitals. Each volunteer receives a custom-designed JCorps shirt, free of charge. “People come for selfish reasons,” he says.
“You meet other people, make business connections and get something out of it.”
It’s Charity 2.0 at its best; call it “social volunteering.” After signing up for an event on JCorps.org, Teman and his volunteer team will “friend” you on Facebook or ask that you send a picture. “We want to make sure that you’re not a 40-year-old man,” he says. JCorps uses the same technology that powers Gmail, so the second time you come back to the site to volunteer again, the form will be filled out for you.
Only a year old, JCorps has thousands of volunteers from more than 115 colleges and 300 companies, and is active in almost every state (and more than 20 countries). Teman markets JCorps by posting pictures from past events on Facebook. “More than 30 percent of volunteers show up because they saw a friend’s picture.”
Teman, who owns a consulting firm called 12gurus, regularly puts into practice the Website design, technology savvy and problem-solving skills he gains on the job. Last May, he and his firm raised nearly $500,000 for Meir Panim with an online art auction and wine sale at www.sensi6.org.
He’s a comedian, too. Seriously. Teman is a regular at Broadway Comedy Club and Stand-Up New York. He’s organized several comedy nights to raise money for charity. Mailbox Full? Teman invented the patent-pending PhoneLobby, which connects supporter’s real phones via the Internet to their governmental representative. The “Callsforjerusalem” campaign used his technology to direct more than 10,000 calls to the White House in support of Israel. It was so successful, the White House’s call center kept dropping calls.