New York, NY – It was a celebration of Judaism at the Orthodox Jewish All Star Awards, as over 200 people turned out to honor ten outstanding individuals who have made their mark in the professional world while remaining steadfast in their commitment to their religious observance.
The annual event is a project of Jew in the City, an organization founded by Allison Josephs to debunk stereotypes about Orthodox Jews while highlighting the beauty of a Torah lifestyle.
The awards ceremony, held this past Thursday night at the Jewish Heritage Museum in Lower Manhattan, recognized the accomplishments of a diverse group of individuals who span the spectrum of Orthodoxy in their own practice of Judaism.
Below VIN News video segment includes interviews with some of the honorees:
Among the honorees was Baroness Rosalind Altmann who was appointed to the House of Lords in the United Kingdom as the country’s pension minister one year ago.
Described by Prime Minister David Cameron as “the country’s leading expert on pensions, savings and financial education,” Dr. Altmann has devoted much of her career to highlighting financial injustices and championing consumer rights. A strong believer in community service and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Altmann often engages in pro bono work and has publicly stated that she donates 20 percent of her income to charity.
Dr. Altmann spoke of every individual having a sense of purpose in the world which includes a wider responsibility to help others.
“Maybe it’s a natural Jewish thing to try and help people, to have compassion, to look after those who are less fortunate or in some way need help,” Dr. Altmann told VIN News. “You don’t turn your back on people who need help. You actually go out of your way to try and help them and I think that comes very loud and clear through Judaism and through the Torah really.”
Dr. Altmann, the first Shomer Shabbos government minister in the United Kingdom, said that her religious observance has never created an issue. She noted that the government has been extremely accepting of her beliefs, as demonstrated by her appointment to the House of Lords which took place on Shabbos in April 2015. The media was informed that Dr. Altmann would not be available for live interviews because of her Shabbos observance and she appeared only in pre-recorded footage with the prime minister when the announcement was made public.
“They have been really respectful of the fact that I am an Orthodox Jew and accommodating,” said Dr. Altmann. “Shabbat, kashrut, [are] not a problem and I feel very fortunate to live in a country that is able to allow people like myself to be fully part of the secular word as well as having our religious observance.”
Bennett Wernick, father of award winning television writer and executive producer Ilana Wernick, wore his role as parent of a Jew in the City All Star proudly.
“The nachas comes not from that she’s an Emmy winning comedy writer, but that she’s an Emmy winning comedy writer that is shomer Shabbos, and that is an inspiration.”
Ms.Wernick said that in her job as a comedy writer she has never had anyone take issue with her need to leave early on Fridays or her yom tov absences.
“I find that if you are very good at your job and sincere in your beliefs that no one is resentful,” said Ms. Wernick. “So far I have been good at my job and they respect what I brought to the table the rest of the week.”
She described one incident where she was part of a group of people from a television show who went bowling together and problems arose when she had kosher pizza delivered to the bowling alley. The owner of the bowling alley refused to permit outside food into his establishment and the star of the television show offered to pay the owner any amount of money to allow the kosher pizza into his bowling alley, a gesture that Ms. Wernick found very touching.
The awards ceremony included pre-recorded videotaped segments of each of the ten honorees. Ahmad Zayat, owner and breeder of American Pharaoh, winner of the 2015 Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. Zayat described himself as an optimist by nature, who has somehow managed to marry his unshakeable faith to his love of horses.
“At the end of the day we all have a higher calling and we all have our own value system,” said Zayat. “My kids and us hopefully grew up in a certain way where we have never compromised what’s important.”
Setting priorities has helped Zayat keep his balance in a world that rarely sees Orthodox Jews.
“For us its always G-d, family, friends, country in that order,” remarked Zayat. “We never compromise on what we believe is right. We’ve been tested a lot, it’s not an easy sport. Faith is an important part of our daily ritual from the minute we open our eyes till the day we close our eyes.”
Zayat’s wife Joanne shared how she packs a full Shabbos whenever they need to be on the road over the weekend, “from wine to gefilte fish to desserts to candles to Saturday morning bagels and shmear, where we have the press so they can come experience Shabbos morning with the Zayats.”
In one instance, a horse that was a heavy favorite to win the Kentucky Derby was injured just before the start of the race. Because the race was held on Shabbos, there was no way of contacting the Zayats and their hopes for winning a Triple Crown were dashed that year.
“There’s got to be some barometer of a higher authority that he got hurt and there’s nothing we could do,” noted Mrs. Zayat. “You have to make sure you have your priorities in line. Once you cross that line and you start making concessions and you’re not true to who you are? It’s a slippery slope.”
The Zayats celebrated their thrilling Triple Crown win in their RV with a Shabbos morning kiddush with members of the media. One person from CNBC was astonished to find Mrs. Zayat personally fussing over everyone like the stereotypical Jewish mother, making sure they all had enough food to eat.
“It’s funny because I think we brought a different flavor to the entire old world, blue grass world of the Kentuckyians,” observed Mrs. Zayat.
Celebrity jewelry designer Zahava Reisman spoke about her Sarah Chloe jewelry, which includes three lines named for each of her three daughters. Ms. Reisman, who admitted to a love of marketing, credited her exceptionally driven publicist with making her designs popular among A-list celebrities and noted that she was inspired by her grandmother who went into business after her husband died prematurely in order to support her children, starting a men’s retail store that is still in business today.
“She was always kind of a spearheader to shake things up, change things,” said Ms. Reisman. “I remember her telling me how before the war in Poland she wanted to become a doctor and then unfortunately the war broke out so she wasn’t able to pursue her dreams but she was always ahead of the time trying out different things before it was kind of socially acceptable, not only in the Jewish religious community but in the world as a whole as young woman being interested in pursuing her dreams.”
Mrs. Josephs noted that Jew in the City has grown beyond anything she ever imagined when she first began releasing videos and blog posts in 2007. She described the annual Orthodox Jewish All Star Awards as yet another way of demonstrating that taking on an observant lifestyle doesn’t mean giving up on career plans or personal goals.
“You don’t have to think that you have to be in a small box to be frum,” said Mrs. Josephs. “If you have some crazy dream, a lot of the time you can work it into a life of Torah and mitzvos.”
Other honorees included 2014 CNN Hero Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, founder and director of Kids Kicking Cancer, Columbia University treasurer Gail Hoffman, Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman, MIT Physics professor Jeremy England, dubbed “The Next Darwin” by Forbes Magazine, Madison Square Garden general counsel, secretary and executive vice president Lawrence Burian and former United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia Norman Eisen.