A new initiative by the UJC/The Jewish Federations of North America seeks to find local heroes all across North America. These are people who according to the Jewish Community Heroes Web site are “the unsung, whether their work impacts five people or 5,000 … We are encouraging communities to nominate Heroes from all walks of life â€” the neighbor running non-profit bake sales, a teacher building a school for the underserved, the entrepreneur donating services to neighborhood development, the community organizer bringing people together.” A panel of judges will pick the 5 finalists from the top 10 voted in by the public at large and the Hero of the Year will win $25,000 to be used as an investment in their community project or non-profit effort.
When I first read of this, I was pleased to see that our own Rabbi Yonah Bookstein had already been nominated (If you want to vote for him simply click here – he’s currently at #5). Reading through the site, I was impressed by the nominees and even more impressed by their first blog post titled “Who is your Hero? Who is your Eli Winkelman?” Eli of course blogs here occasionally and has staffed every single Jewlicious Festival. She is also the dynamo behind Challah for Hunger a national grass roots organization dedicated to raising awareness of and money for hunger and disaster relief, through the production and sale of challah bread. With 21 chapters and more opening around the world, it’s no wonder they chose to feature her!
So I thought this whole campaign was pretty cool. And then I thought “Wait, what? Since when is the UJC cool?? What’s going on here?” To that end I got in touch with the fine folks behind this campaign and had an extended email chat with Andy Neusner of UJC, who’s been leading the development of Jewish Community Heroes, and Lindsey Silken, editor in chief of JVibe, who has been blogging at Jewishcommunityheroes.org. I attempted to cleverly trick Andy and Lindsey into letting me know what exactly was the hidden agenda here. Read the interview after the bump.
ck: Hello Andy and Lindsey! OK so what’s this all about? I know the specifics of course. I guess the question is what do you hope to accomplish with this initiative? What are the UJC’s organizational goals? And how does one define a hero? For instance my biggest heroes are my parents who are otherwise very modest people. They didn’t go to College (though my Mom who is 65 just got a BA in Jewish studies after studying for like 12 years), instead they just worked and continue to work hard and have sacrificed everything for the sake of their family. One man’s hero is another man’s cab driver. So what’s a hero according to the UJC and why should we care?
Andy: Nu, so why haven’t you nominated your mother yet. Don’t you love her?
Lindsey: My non-insidery perpective is thus… Having just gone through a similar awards program (which I will plug), I find the Jewish Heroes to be an excellent addition to other awards in the Jewish community. For one, it’s open to everyone, including your mother. I love that the public votes–this isn’t just about who the UJC wants to place on their pedestal. What defines a hero? Defining the parameters for nominees is one of the hardest parts of launching a program like this. It’s something JVibe spent a lot of time considering for our recent awards–the 18 Under 18 list. I think the UJC has a similar perspective: keep it as broad as possible. What defines a hero to you?
Our 18 Under 18 list had a similar (but private) nomination process at 18under18.com. Because we didn’t have a budget, we only spread the word to folks in the Jewish community we thought would nominate stellar teens, and we did the picking. For a non-budgeted first-time awards program, it went very well and the winners are up at http://jvibe.com//Real_life/18Under18.php. But the UJC clearly has put a lot of manpower behind the Hero Awards and the way they’re involving social networking and other free forms of publicity is awesome. This is a community award to honor someone who is doing something good for their community and the UJC is mobilizing communities to be a part of the process–what better approach is there? Personally, I think some of JVibe’s teen nominees will blow away the adult competition and my own
stake is to get a teen finalist in there.
Did this answer any of your questions?
ck: Wow. Y’all are both kinda eager. I’m not going to nominate my parents because they are intensely private people and my Mom would kill me. Lindsey’s response was certainly exhaustive… Andy? You have anything you want to add from the insider’s perspective? I mean JVibe is fun and all but we’re curious about Big Brother’s, I mean the UJC’s perspective. This whole thing seems a little more, uh… playful than what we’re used to from you guys. What’s going on?
Andy: As someone who has both been downsized by a publisher in the past (David, my background is book and online editorial, and then before UJC, a longish stint as director of digital media for JTA), and certainly in the current era has seen staffing cuts all around the core Jewish organizations that make so many vital enterprises go ’round, I feel your pain.
But back to Heroes…
I’m pleased to hear you use the word playful for this. I’m certainly not oblivious to the usual characterizations of UJC and the Feds. We can, no doubt about it, get so careful in our semantics that we sound bureaucratic or removed. But this was a great opportunity to not just do outbound messaging but instead to provide an embrace to the world of volunteers and activists and their supporters that we rely on so much to make this a better world. We do hope that people will appreciate UJC and the Federations and our other esteemed partners (JTA, Hillel, HIAS etc — see full list here… ) for helping to make this event the success we all hope it will be, but we also want to make things better for volunteers.
The phrase ‘it’s a thankless task’ leapt to mind the other day; that’s often a way people describe their volunteer work, whether it’s staffing a soup kitchen or organizing a book sale or making sure a senior home has visitors. So one goal of this program is to have people from their communities and the larger Jewish world say ‘thank you’ for a change. Maybe that will make some more people want to sign up to take their turn, or start something new.
Also, we’d like to encourage what we’re calling viral volunteerism (no idea if that’s a new term), which is when a smart way to solve a local problem can spread from place to place, because it can work all over. Like that Challah Girl example, where one small local campus effort to fight hunger by baking and selling extra shabbat challahs spread to a bunch more campuses. If we can motivate that, both by naming some national honorees and by just generally encouraging people to visit our site and read about some of these great efforts, that would be amazing.
So, we can’t get all that done from up on high. We have to knit together a new community out of lots of existing Jewish communities, and to do that, we need people to speak to people about this in less formal voices, spreading it using the ‘tell a friend’ tool we built into this system, or just telling a friend or family member the old-fashioned way. That works way better than when organizations just use a megaphone or a press release, though we’re doing that too!
ck: I don’t think either of you used the buzz word du jour aka “innovation” once, yet you certainly alluded to it. That’s kind of refreshing! Now one way or another you’re both Federation people. Can you leave us off with something scary? Please??
Andy: Re Eli: Cool that she’s part of your gaggle. Not to get all Whitney Houston-ish, but she was definitely an inspiration to us. When we pondered what we could hope for as an upside result for the service initiatives that get recognized by our campaign, the spread of her program was what we talked about.
Did I forget to say innovation? Innovation Innovation Innovation! There. Seriously though, when we were laying out the parameters of the Hero Awards, the other idea on the table was an award for an innovative new idea. We went the current way instead because we felt it had a lower barrier to entry (as you said, everyone can think of a hero. Or if none leaps to mind, they can take part by voting for the previously-nominated worthies) and because there are some other terrific efforts out there already seeking to invent the next great Jewish whatever.
Anything else? I can go on for hours!
Lindsey: Are you including me as one of those people? JVibe never got a dime from the feds, but I suppose I am playing on their team now, although I agree with your sentiment that I’d always thought of the federations as well, the opposite of playful. What do you mean scary???
ck: I was just kidding about the scary thing. But yes, do tell me something scary about the Jewish world. First thing that comes to mind!
Lindsey: About the Jewish world? … The scariest thing in the Jewish world right now is the fact that we keep starting new organizations that already exist, just so we can be the one who starts it. And people are actually funding these things! If there’s anything good that comes out of this terrible economy it will be that the Jewish world gets consolidated, and that is pretty scary.
Andy: As to saying something scary, hmmm. Oh, wait, I’ve got one. Hopefully some of the folks who make a nomination or cast a vote will have a more positive image of their local federation, or of one of the other participating nonprofits. So… Someday when that Jewish organization is making their super Sunday fundraising calls or organizing an Israel solidarity rally, these participants may find themselves more likely to say yes.
See, I’m not allowed to say that because it sounds self-serving since I’m with UJC, a preexisting organization that helps Federations accumulate a collective pool of annual campaign funds that feeds millions upon millions of dollars a year into existing domestic and overseas Jewish orgs that we think are doing great, though not always glamorous things for the Jewish world. Hopefully, if someone sees an existing org and thinks it’s not doing things perfectly, we’d ask that people join it and improve it. And if the org is resistant, well, try harder.
ck: Thanks for your input!
Andy: Just one last UJC promo moment based on that: UJC and by extension the Fed system is one of the two lead sponsors of Bikkurim, an incubator program for newbie Jewish nonprofits. Since 2000, we have been giving these promising new operations facilities to work from, plus professional advice on surviving and thriving. Mechon Hadar, Hazon and Jdub are among the well-known current Bikkurim groups or graduates.
ck: Andy you are funny. You think we don’t know about Bikkurim? Dude we are Jewlicious and we know everything!
Andy: Well, I get kinda snippy about this stuff because every once in a while I’ll read an article that makes it sound like the established Jewish orgs are out to stomp on great new ideas, when we’re actually actively helping champion new, smart efforts that complement and enrich the existing Jewish org world… Sorry to slight your copious Jewlicious knowledge base. Of course you were all over Bikkurim.
ck: Like a cheap suit! So again, thanks for your time. For those of you interested in submitting a nomination or on voting for those already nominated (like Rabbi Yonah), do please feel free to visit http://jewishcommunityheroes.org/. The whole process is remarkably simple – have fun!