Talented teachers and talented students go hand in hand, so the Jewish Educator Awards Student Essay Contest was a natural extension of the partnership between the Milken Family Foundation and BJE. Participation is open to middle and high school students at all 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. Two winners are selected, one at the middle and one at the high school level. In addition, each of the students selected has the opportunity to designate a $500 contribution to an approved charity of his or her choice.
The 2012 themes ask students to ponder the following questions:
Middle School Topic (Grades 6-8):
Imagine you were given $1,000 and could donate it to any person or organization. Whom would you give it to and why? What would you want them to do with it?
High School Topic (Gades 9-12):
Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?" Using specific examples, describe how this quote is relevant to you as a Jew living in 5773/5774.
DeLeT Education Director
Hebrew Union Collegeó Jewish Institute of Religion
Jewish Educator Award Recipient, 2004
Past President, BJE
Former Middle School Language Arts Teacher
Money is a complex notion. It has the power to destroy a civilization, yet it can save trillions of lives. If I had $1,000, I would give something I love to someone who needs it. I love and devour books. My nightstand overflows with all the books I have consumed. Reading must be genetic because my grandparents are avid readers, and everyone in my family reads passionately. I recently lost my grandfather to mesothelioma. He arrived to every chemotherapy treatment with several books in hand. Grandpa always said the best way to deal with painful chemotherapy treatments is by "escaping into a really good book." In memory of my grandfather, I would use this money to purchase high quality literature books and distribute them through Chai Lifeline to children who struggle with cancer.
Reading is the ideal way to escape the discomfort of chemotherapy. Many organizations generate hope and optimism in seriously ill children, but Chai Lifeline provides incomparable support throughout the child's illness, recovery and beyond. Chai Lifeline is a dynamic organization that supports seriously ill children by bringing joy to the lives of young patients. One of Chai Lifeline's guiding principles is that "seriously ill children need and deserve as happy and normal a childhood as possible". I cannot think of anything more joyous then cracking open the binding of a brand new book.
In honor of my upcoming bar mitzvah, I have been contacting numerous publishing houses and gathering many books to donate to Chai Lifeline, so that they will distribute these books to children suffering with cancer. No scientist could calculate how much joy is in the air when a child is happily engaged in reading, especially a child with cancer who faces great challenges. Reading helps us forget our troubles as we escape into another world. My grandfather was a loyal fan of Groucho Marx who once said: "I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." Whenever I receive a new book, this particular quote pops into my head, and I smile.
Many organizations are available to bring smiles to a sick child, but Chai Lifeline is unique. One of their guiding principles is: "All services are free of charge to ensure that every family has access to the programs it needs. Chai Lifeline finds ways to bring joy to the lives of our young patients and their families through creative, innovative and effective family centered programs, activities and services." I know my grandfather appreciated this organization, and he would be proud that I am taking an active role in supporting Chai Lifeline.
It has been a privilege and an honor to be spending my spare time assisting Chai Lifeline. I look forward to seeing the smiles on the faces of young patients. I know my grandfather is with me and will be smiling down on me in spirit when I deliver all those delicious new books.
In my life, I have sometimes come across situations where the "right" decision to make eludes me. In the end, however, it always is up to me to make a decision and hope that it was the correct one. Although I could probably take the easy way out and shy away from my responsibilities, as Hillel asks, "if I am not for myself, who will be for me?" As I approach adulthood, I cannot expect others to make the difficult choices, such as how to raise my children or make important business decisions. It is solely up to me to educate myself about my options and make the best possible choices for myself. Some adults took the attitude when they were young that they would try harder and improve later on in life, but this approach is incorrect because if you donít take life seriously now, then when are you going to start? Every second of life is precious and should be spent improving oneself in some way, whether itís learning Torah or oneís relationship with others. These improvements can be made through action, as well as by observing and learning important lessons from the world around you. Once we have instilled these important lessons, we can become an active, contributing member of a community.
Hillel also asks, "If I am not for others, what am I?" Our sages teach that it is incorrect to withhold your knowledge of Torah from others. So in my daily life, if I do not contribute to others in some way, in a certain sense Iím deteriorating the quality of the lives of the people around me. The only way for relationships to work is if both people contribute to each other, thereby forming a union that lasts. If people just keep on taking from others, eventually thereís nothing left for us to build upon.
The final question Hillel asks is "If not now, when?" For me, the answer to this question is simple, because I have already begun to answer these questions for myself. I am a young man, but I am a man. I can contribute to my family, my friends, my community, and my school right now. I can make a difference today, and every day I try to do that. By being there for others, I am there for myself. By working to better myself today, I increase the chances of being a better person tomorrow. Finally, as a Jew living in 5774, I know my community has certain expectations of me. The world, in a sense, looks up to the Jewish nation as a higher echelon of society, whether itís the way we behave, or just taking responsibility for our actions. Hopefully, we can instill in our minds this important quote from our great sage Hillel, and use his words to frame our goals in life.