New York – The top five finalists in this year’s Jewish Federations of North America Jewish Community Heroes contest are preparing for a trip to the Federation’s General Assembly in New Orleans next week to find out who will be named the 2010 Jewish Community Hero and be the recipient of a $25,000 grant for their organization. The finalists are: Jay Feinberg, Zvi Gluck, Dr. Stephen Kutner, Dmitriy Salita and Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky. 311,265 votes were cast in this year’s contest and the finalists were picked from a field of 210 nominees.
The nominees are an eclectic bunch, yet each one has the same goal: to make the world a better place.
Jay Feinberg of Boca Raton founded the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, after enduring a grueling four year search for a bone marrow donor to combat the leukemia that nearly took his life due to the under representation of Jews in the nationwide bone marrow registries. Today, over 170,000 donors are listed in the bone marrow registry and 2,100 matches have been made.
Zvi Gluck of Queens has devoted himself to helping others no matter what the situation and will give his earning to Our Place, a Brooklyn and Israel based organization that helps 800 – 1,000 troubled teens annually.
Dr. Stephen Kutner, an Atlanta opthamologist, is the founder and volunteer Medical Director at the Jewish Health Care International, which sends professionals around the world to meet the needs of communities in crisis.
Dmitriy Salita, a Ukranian born boxer from Brooklyn, who made headlines by refusing to fight on Shabbos or Jewish holidays. He founded the Ezra USA -Dmitry Salita Youth Center in Brooklyn to help bring the Russian Jewish community together and promote Jewish learning.
Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky, one of the first Russian American Jews to become ordained as a Rabbi after the fall of the Soviet Union, cofounded RAJE, the Russian American Jewish Experience, a semester long program targeting eighteen to thirty year olds, culminating in a two week trip to Europe and Israel.
A panel of sixteen judges selected the finalists from a slide show featuring the top twenty vote getters in the contest. A seventeenth judge had to recuse himself after his daughter in law was selected as one of the twenty finalists. The judges were asked to pick the top five candidates who embodied the concept of tikun olam.
“It was very exciting to see how they picked the finalists,” said Andy Neusner, Web Contact Manager at the JFNA told VIN News. “Unlike last year, the person who will be named the winner at the General Assembly was picked by every single one of our judges.”
The winner, who will be announced at the November 7th – 9th General Assembly in New Orleans, will receive a $25,000 grant for their organization and a shofar with an engraved base, which Neusner called “our version of the Oscar statuette.” Each of the four runners up will receive a $1,000 grant for their cause.
In an exclusive interview, each of the five finalists told VIN News discussed their experience in this prestigious contest.
Vos Iz Neias: How does it feel to be named one of the top five?
Jay Feinberg: I am honored to be named one of the top five. As a bone marrow transplant recipient , I feel it is the bone marrow donors who are the actual heroes, but will be happy to accept this honor on their behalf. When you hear about total strangers willing to save the life of someone they never met, that is extraordinary. If you have a few thousand awards to give out, those people are the true heroes.
Zvi Gluck: It feels good. Honestly this was a shock.
Dr. Stephen Kutner: Everyone who was nominated is a hero in and of themselves. It felt very good to be part of this group and it is a great honor to be recognized. I was so impressed with all the nominees, not just the finalists.
Dmitriy Salita: It is an incredible honor. The whole contest is a great way for the Jewish community in the United States to get to know the different organizations that people are involved with. All the nominees are doing tremendous work in their community and I am inspired to see what people are doing.
Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky: This is a big achievement for the Russian Jewish community who are represented by two of the five finalists. But this isn’t about me, this is about the RAJE team and the cause of Russian Jewry in America.
How do you plan on using your winnings to help your organization?
JF: First, I plan to use the money to test more bone marrow donors. There are people waiting to become donors, but without funding we cannot test them. We currently search for donors for 10,000 patients a year and need matches for two young boys, ages three and four. Second of all, the money will enable us to raise awareness, encouraging more people to become donors, which involves nothing more than a cheek swab. Even donating bone marrow involves nothing more than donating stem cells from the arm and is a quick and easy procedure.
ZG: As the only nominee who doesn’t have his own organization, I am happy to donate my grant to Our Place. This isn’t about the winnings, it is about publicity, making people aware of Our Place and the problems that plague Judaism today.
SK: Any grants we receive will be used to meet the budget of our organization, which consists of only one part time and two full time employees. I myself have been a volunteer since we started.
DS: Most of the funding I receive will go to Ezra USA which opened in June as a way to acquaint Russian Jewish youth with Jewish communal life and traditions in a way that will appeal to them. We provide Friday night dinners, movie nights and other educational activities and as a product of outreach work, I know that this approach works. I will also donate some of my winnings to my local Chabad House.
MT: Every dollar received will go to RAJE to help reconnect Russian Jews to the Jewish people and their heritage. There are close to one million Russian Jews in America who do not receive a Jewish education and if we don’t act now, in the next twenty five years they will disappear from the Jewish people forever.
What are your plans for the immediate future?
JF: Since my transplant, my vision for the future has always been to ensure that no patient dies for lack of a donor for a transplant. No one should ever go through what I went through. I was told point blank “you won’t find a match because you are Jewish.”
ZG: I never know what any given day will bring. Currently I am working on programs in schools and yeshivos, setting up training to deal with abuse in the frum world.
SK: I am off again to Haiti, this time for five days at the Central Plateau, two and half hours north of Port Au Prince, to assess their needs. The goal is the same as always: build an infrastructure, teach them how to deal with their needs, have a positive impact on the area.
DS: As Ezra USA is only five months old, I plan on widening the scope of activities. I plan on opening up more centers in any city with a large Russian Jewish community and am hoping to open up next in Miami and Toronto.
MT: Not only are we planning on expanding our New York program, we are starting a campaign to bring RAJE to every major city in North America that has a Russian Jewish community.
What was the best part of this contest?
JF: The awareness generated for the causes was tremendous. In our case, many new donors signed up. Any time we add a measure of social justice to our lives, we have achieved some measure of success.
ZG: It shed a positive light on my work, which can sometimes be very trying. The outpouring of support from people I don’t even know was truly inspiring.
SK: Seeing all the nominees was amazing. The response from all over the world, the support for me and my organization was terrific.
DS: The publicity that the organization received. It gives people confidence to know that people care and makes them feel proud of what they are doing. To see so many people from all walks of life, all levels of observance contributing to society is a beautiful thing.
MT: It allowed us to demonstrate the potential of our work. Russian Jews are close to one fifth of all Jews in North America, the largest community of unaffiliated Jews. We showed our strength in numbers and what we can accomplish in a short time. A contest involving a few hundred nominees, supported by major organizations and the Russian community clearly came out ahead.
What do you feel was the best part of this experience?
JF: The heightened awareness that people now have of bone marrow donation. If just one person joined the registry because of this contest it would have been a success, but we know of hundreds of people who have joined. I am here because of a complete stranger who tried to save a life and am just trying to pay that back. Whether you join a bone marrow registry or do any of the wonderful things people are doing it is all about the power of one. No matter what you do, every person counts.
ZG: Seeing that anyone has the power to make a difference. If every person would look around them and do something to help others, the world would be a better place. I am not a hero, just a simple person that has no problem getting my hands dirty. Heroes are Superman and Batman, but they don’t exist. It is regular people who can change the world.
SK: The incredible response from people, becoming aware of what we do, wanting to be a part of it, coming on board and volunteering. It is like the old adage – you teach someone to fish so that they can help themselves.
DS: The message of Judaism is unity, no matter who you are and where you come from. I hope to follow the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who urged everyone to influence the people around you to do good. Ever since I was young, I wanted to be able to use my success to highlight causes I felt were important. I took upon myself to be openly and proudly Jewish and this is what I continue to do. Boxing is not forever. Sports are not forever. But I can be helping Russian Jewry for my entire life.
MT: Bringing attention to our cause and showing how we can work together and be a source of pride to our community.