During Chanukah, we recall the bravery of Jews centuries ago and the miracles that wrought their victory for freedom.
Yet, you don't need to look to centuries past in order to celebrate miracles today. In our own time, every day, Jews are achieving new miracles, great and small, and this Chanukah we celebrate their inspiring leadership.
These past five months, the Jewish community has helped shine a light on our own contemporary community heroes. For the third year in a row, the Jewish Federations of North America sponsored the Jewish Community Heroes Awards, a national online contest that recognizes and promotes selfless acts of kindness.
This year, over 300 people nationwide were nominated for making the world a better place. Over the course of three months, the Jewish Heroes contest generated over 230,000 votes, with many voters also encouraging others to participate and thereby further raising awareness of these modern-day Jewish Heroes.
The nominees themselves were simply inspiring. Whether they were creating jobs in the community, leading birthright trips with local universities, or simply helping others through troubled times, the nominees helped shine a light on incredible stories of heroism.
After months of public voting and a review by a panel of judges, Randy Gold of Atlanta, GA, was named this year's Jewish Community Hero and the recipient of a $25,000 grant. Randy and his wife, Caroline, founded the Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen back in 2010, after they discovered their second child, Eden, was diagnosed with Mucolipidosis Type IV, a preventable Jewish genetic disease. Jewish couples are required to go through pre-natal screening, but they were surprised to learn that they were only screened for eight of a possible 19 known diseases.
This experience with their daughter fueled their motivation to found the Atlanta Jewish Gene Screen. This organization creates awareness and educates rabbis, doctors and Jewish couples on the importance of genetic counseling and screening for preventable and life-threatening disorders commonly present in Jewish families. Their work so far has increased pre-natal screenings in Atlanta by an incredible 400 percent. They aim to one day have screening for all 19 Jewish genetic diseases as the standard medical practice for Jewish couples worldwide, so no one has to experience what they went through.
Heroes judge, actress and former star of Blossom, Mayim Bialik, said, "What Randy has done is lay the groundwork for changing the way Jewish people understand and create future generations with our genetics. Randy is literally taking one life and turning it into generations and generations of simchas as numerous as the stars of the sky!"
The Heroes grant is intended to help the Hero expand their work even further, touch more lives, and continue their efforts. Last year, Jay Feinberg was named the Jewish Community Hero for his work to found a Jewish bone marrow registry. After being diagnosed with cancer, Jay soon learned that a patient's best chance of finding a genetic match lies with those of similar ethnic background. There was an urgent need to add diversity to the registry, and time was of the essence. Jay went on to found the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and it has been a great success since. Since becoming the 2010 Hero, Jay had been able to use the grant to make life-saving matches between five people with cancer and suitable bone marrow donors.
Along with this year's Hero, four finalists were also named, and their work highlights the diversity of the work that the Jewish Community Heroes Awards attracts. For example, their contributions to the community ranged from Hart Levine's organization, which aims to connect Jews and enable them to build their own communities across the Shabbat table, to Shana Erenberg's efforts to bring Jewish Special Education to the forefront in Chicago. The work of the other finalists, Jenine Shwekey and Tessa Gerall, are also examples of the selfless deeds Jews perform every day.
During Chanukah, as we celebrate timeless bravery and miracles, let us take a moment to recognize heroism and miracles in our time by thanking every one of this year's Jewish Community Heroes. As they each share the spirit of tikkun olam -- repair of the world -- they are all heroes, bringing light to darkness and leading the way for others to follow.
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