If I could mention someone else who inspires my philanthropy, I’d like to mention Rachel Jacobs. Rachel founded Detroit Nation and was the driving force behind it since its founding. She brought me into the organization and provided me with an opportunity to be a part of this really cool idea. She tragically passed away in the Amtrak accident outside of Philadelphia this past spring. Rachel’s energy, passion, and optimism helped me look at challenges in new ways, focus on solving problems, and approach life from a place of thoughtful optimism.
My parents are my role models for many things, and particularly in terms of my giving.Growing up, it wasn’t just giving financial giving that they instilled in me but that you should be involved in an inclusive manner, including through community service and engagement. They built this into how they talked to us. We always had a tzedakah box, but more than that, we volunteered regularly. Growing up, regardless of what they were doing, we were talking about ways of giving back.
From 2007-2009, I served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, where I worked on disability rights alongside a continuously inspiring woman – Kuralai Baimenova. Kuralai built what was at that point a 9 year old organization from scratch. Over ten years before, she was in a car accident. Like many people in the FSU, the car accident led to irreversible damage, and she lost the use of her legs. When she talks about her story, she generally shares that after laying on the couch, depressed, for weeks, if not months, one day she woke up and realized that not only is she the same person, with the same energy, and same will she had before the accident, but that she can take what many would consider a tragedy and engage with it. Pretty quickly thereafter, she started a TV show. profiling other people with disabilities around the region, and then built that momentum into an NGO focused on creating a community where people with disabilities can lead mobile, independent, and active lives. What she built, and the community and partnerships she’s developed continue to ground and motivate me today.
Tell us more about your time in the Peace Corps.
I was assigned to Kazakhstan to work with the Organization for the Society of the Protection of People with Disabilities in Aktobe (Kazakhstani organizations still retain their long-name tendency). As a volunteer, there were a mix of activities. I had two main projects in partnership with the Kazakhstani staff. I assisted with the development and building of a wheelchair favory – the first in Central Asia, owned and managed by people with disabilities. I also worked with pairing up young adults with people of disabilities. Young adults and people of all ages with some sort of disability were paired together.
By the time I left, the program had far exceeded me – the volunteers had for a time been self-organizing and developing new programs. The program’s goal was to break down barriers between the “disabled” and “abled”. Kazakhstan, like many places around the world, has a strong discriminatory culture against people with disabilities. One of the best moments of my time in Kazakhstan was when a few young adults who were in wheelchairs and had Cerebral Palsy recognized themselves as volunteers – they no longer saw themselves as “clients”, but felt empowered to act. I remember one night where one of our volunteers called, they were inviting me to one of their birthday parties. I entered the house and it was filled with our volunteers – in wheelchairs, on their feet, in crutches. Everyone was dancing and having fun together, as young people, without any barriers between physical conditions. When I left at midnight, the dancing was still going.
Your travel has been connected with your philanthropy. Where did this connection first begin and how has it evolved?
I first traveled internationally in 1999. I had the random opportunity to travel to Bulgaria with BBYO, my high school Jewish youth group, alongside around 29 other American and Bulgarian Jewish teens. At the time, I had no inkling that I would return to that part of the world and had no idea how to continue to connect with Jewish communities in other countries – outside of my 15 new Bulgarian friends. A year later, I returned to Bulgaria with the same trip, this time joined by my sister. This became the unexpected start of years of travel to the Former Soviet Union and ongoing immersion into Jewish communities around the world. 5 years later, I traveled to Ukraine with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Michigan Hillel, and then followed that with a few years in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, in addition to fairly regular travel to Israel.
Returning to the States after each trip, I remember feeling frustrated about an apparent disconnect between Jewish communities around the world. We could communicate instantly between Detroit and Sofia, but from my perspective, the Jewish communal conversation always seemed to segment communities geographically. Despite the very different backgrounds and experiences that led 15 Jewish teenagers from America and 15 Jewish teenagers from Bulgaria to a hotel together in Sofia, much more connected us than made us distinct. And, it was these distinct stories that made the connection special. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to become more active in helping build global Jewish communities, currently serving as Co-Chair of JDC Entwine and on the Board and Executive Committee of JDC. I’ve realized that the value of Jewish identity is not simply in a shared history and shared stories, but to paraphrase Ralph Goldman, is in the responsibility we have for each other.
What other causes are you passionate about supporting?:
I have been involved with Detroit Nation for many years. It is focused on connecting Detroit “expats” – Detroiters who left the area – with Detroit-based entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and activists, helping to support and shape a new, inclusive vision for Detroit. Over the past few years, the narrative about Detroit has shifted. No longer is the national narrative primarily about the “failure” of Detroit. Instead, the city’s revitalization is broadly recognized. Detroit still has massive problems, but the region is in a much different place from when Detroit Nation started over 6 years ago. It has been wonderful to have been a small part of helping to shift that narrative and to help build a network of people interested in and taking action to create a new, inclusive reality in the city.
If I could mention someone else who inspires my philanthropy, I’d like to mention:
Rachel Jacobs. Rachel founded Detroit Nation and was the driving force behind it since its founding. She brought me into the organization and provided me with an opportunity to be a part of this really cool idea. She tragically passed away in the Amtrak accident outside of Philadelphia this past spring. Rachel’s energy, passion, and optimism helped me look at challenges in new ways, focus on solving problems, and approach life from a place of thoughtful optimism.
How is philanthropy a part of your daily life?
I’ve tried to integrate my giving into how I live, what i do on a daily basis, and both my personal and professional life. As we discussed earlier, giving is inclusive – it’s giving time, money, and simply being there to support others. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, it was obvious on a daily basis how much I didn’t know. I’ve tried to approach life since then with a similar sense of humility and humor.