An exciting extension of the partnership between the Milken Family Foundation and the BJE launched this fall with the Jewish Educator Awards Student Essay Contest. Participation is open to middle and high school students at BJE-affiliated schools. As with the Jewish Educator Awards, recognition of excellence is an important part of the competition, which presents an unrestricted gift of $1,800 to the schools of the prize-winning essayists. In addition, each of the two student winners will have the opportunity to designate a $500 contribution to the charity of his or her choice.
Year One topics asked middle school students (grades 6-8) to discuss "Who Is Your Jewish Hero and Why?" High school students (grades 9-12) reflected on "What Does It Mean to be a Jewish Leader?"
Sincere appreciation goes to the judges for their thoughtful review and deliberation in selecting JEA Student Essay Contest finalists.
JEA Student Essay Contest Judges
Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles/Tribe Media Corp
Eileen Horowitz, JEA 2004
Luisa Latham, JEA 1993
The two winning entries are:
Teach by Example
Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy
A Leader's Compassion
Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad
I recently became a Bar Mitzvah. At my celebration, as I called my father up to light his candle, everyone watched as he slowly made his way to the table. His walk was ungainly, but everyone noticed only the pride in his heart. Standing in front of my friends and relatives, I proudly spoke of how my father not only told me to be a good Jew, but how he showed me by example every day of my life. I believe now, more than I ever did as a young child, that the greatest Jewish hero in the world is my dad. Why? My dad was born prematurely, when his mom was pregnant for only six months. Because of this, his legs did not develop normally, and he is unable to walk like everybody else. He limps and gets tired after walking only short distances. However, nothing stops my dad when it comes to being an observant Jew, and for this reason he is my true Jewish hero.
When we moved to the United States from Mexico City twelve years ago, we found a suitable apartment in Los Angeles. This apartment was a good distance from shul, and we lived on the 6th floor! But these obstacles never stopped my father from walking back from shul on Friday nights, to and back from shul on Shabbat mornings, and to shul Shabbat afternoons. Every Shabbat, my dad walked seven miles, which for him was like walking twenty miles. Even if it is pouring rain, sweltering hot, or bitter cold outside, he still walks to shul. I have never heard my father complain. He continually illustrates his commitment to being an observant Jew, making me want to emulate him throughout my life.
My dad always taught me the importance of being Jewish. As I studied for my Bar Mitzvah, he encouraged me and stressed the significance of becoming a bar mitzvah. More importantly, he has always showed me by example how to be a pious Torah Jew. Even though he is highly educated, sometimes my father had to take jobs that were not suited for him. However, he chooses work that allows him to keep Shabbat. I remember once he had a great opportunity to work at American Express, but he turned the offer down because if he worked there, he would have to work on Shabbat and on Chagim. He has been teaching and showing me that nothing is more important to our family than our religion and beliefs.
Ever since Pre-1, my father has made it his priority to make sure I receive a Torah education in a fine Jewish school. He has willingly sacrificed so he can afford thousands of dollars a year so I can learn the six hundred thirteen mitzvoth and the thirteen midot. I thank him for teaching me Torah values and showing me by example that I should always follow my beliefs. My dad doesnít tell me how to live. He lives and tells me to watch him. He is not only the greatest Jewish hero, but he is the greatest person in the world.
The leaders of Jewry throughout the ages exhibited a multitude of honorable qualities. Some displayed astounding courage and self-sacrifice. Others possessed profound intellects and grasped even the most mystical and complicated of concepts. They were utterly dedicated to their faith and epitomized the idea of being a pious and God-fearing Jew. There is only one quality, however, that truly entitles a man to stand among this lofty group. This character trait transcends common sense and physicality and depends solely on the heart. A Jewish leader's defining characteristic is his ability to care.
In most circumstances the word 'relationship' describes the connection between two entities. These entities relate to each otheróthey have something in common. As a result, a link forms between them. Yet this is as far as it goes. This link is weak and delicate at best, and can dissolve in a second if the individuals but lose the common ground that unites them. When all is said and done, these two beings are just that: two separate beings. In their respective cores, in the nucleus of their realities, they are worlds apart, each with its own unique existence that nothing and no one else will ever really be a part of. Deep down, they don't mean much to each other.
The relationship between a Jewish leader and follower, though, is an exception, for this is a connection based on deep founded and entirely unconditional love, not unlike the bond parents and children share. To a Jewish leader, followers are not separate entities. At his core, the leader is not removed and apathetic towards them as though they were merely a crowd, a blurred and faceless mass whose innermost thoughts and desires are of little consequence. In fact, the antithesis is true. A Jewish leader's disciples are part of him. He is not his own, distinct entity, but one made up of millions of smaller ones. Thus, when a person has a difficulty, a need, or a want, the leader doesn't see just another follower among many, with just another problem among many. He sees it as though he himself had this problem, as though he himself was hurting, and he solves this problem and soothes this hurt as he would for himself.
A reporter once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe what title would be most appropriate for him. Was he a leader? A teacher? A role model? The response would astonish some, but to me itís just proof to what Iíve always believed. ďI,Ē replied the Rebbe, ďAm a best friend.Ē
This is a Jewish leaderís most amazing ability, his defining attribute, and his legacy. Itís not his divine foresight or his piety. Nor is it his brilliance. It's the simple fact that he is the shepherd who thinks not that 'my flock needs to be fed' but that 'this sheep is hungry and this sheep is hungry' and so on. Heís your failsafe, your ubiquitous pillar of support. He cares.