In Hebrew, the phrase “tikkun olam” means repair the world, and three North County teenagers so embody the spirit of that Judaic principle that they’ll be honored next week with national 2019 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
For the past 12 years, the Bay area-based Helen Diller Family Foundation has selected 15 American teens of Jewish heritage, ages 13 to 19, who have made strides to empower youth, educate, fight racism, aid immigrants and and improve access to services for the needy.
Each prize comes with a $36,000 cash award that the recipients can use for their advocacy work or college education. Diller, a noted philanthropist who died in 2015, was the child of Jewish immigrants and the wife of billionaire real estate developer Sanford Diller, who died last year.
Among this year’s recipients are Beatriz De Oliveira, 17, of Carmel Valley; Ethan Hirschberg, 18, of Carlsbad; and John Finkelman, 18, of Carmel Valley. De Oliveira started a foundation that has provided free books to more than 11,000 preschoolers in her native Brazil. Hirschberg publishes a blog and does motivational speaking on his personal journey through autism. And Finkelman runs a resource program that provides life skills training to recent refugees in San Diego.
Jackie Safier, the Dillers’ daughter who now runs the Diller Family Foundation, said the 129 Tikkun Olam awardees over the years have found creative ways to confront some of the nation’s most divisive issues.
“Now more than ever, young people are on the front lines of change, leading the way for our communities around the world,” she said in a statement. “These teens remind us that people of any age can make a difference in the world and they are inspirational examples for us all.”
In interviews this week, all three teens say they learned the spirit of helping others from their parents and they’re most excited to meet their fellow honorees next Monday at a luncheon in San Francisco. Here are profiles of all three.
Beatriz De Oliveira: Books for a Change
Beatriz De Oliveira moved to San Diego with her Brazilian family when she was 2 years old, but her mother kept the family in close touch with their roots through frequent trips back to the South American nation. Then, on an extended visit four years ago, she visited her grandmother at a preschool where she was trying to teach the alphabet to toddlers who, in many cases, had never seen a book.
“I was extremely in shock,” said De Oliveira. “Then I went home and did research and learned that only 55 percent of children in Brazil are at the right reading level when they reach elementary school. I’m an avid reader, so books are very dear and important to me. Originally, I wanted to donate a few books but it snowballed from there.”
Over the past four years, De Oliveira’s nonprofit Books for a Change has thousands of Portuguese-language, early-reader books to preschools serving more than 11,000 children, mostly in the region around São Paulo, where she’s from. With a network of 50 volunteers in Brazil and 200 students at San Diego-area high schools, Books for a Change raises money to buy sturdy new books from a bookseller in Brazil. Each preschool gets a minimum of 50 to 70 books. Some have received up to 300 books, depending on the size of the school.
“For many of these kids, this is the first time they’ve ever seen a book, so to watch these kids open up these books and start reading them is incredibly rewarding,” she said.
De Oliveira is now creating a curriculum of videos that will be used to train daycare and preschool providers in Brazil ib how to read books to toddlers to make the learning process more impactful. She has also organized book drives in San Diego for children in Mexico and for children in the surgical ward at Rady Children’s Hospital. She plans to use $6,000 of her award money on books in Brazil and spend the rest on college.
Now entering her senior year at Torrey Pines High School, De Oliveira said running Books for a Change has changed her college and career plans. She would like to earn a degree in public policy and move back to Brazil where she has already seen how her small efforts can make significant change.
Since she was a little girl, De Oliveira said her Jewish mother has instilled in her the spirit of tikkun olam and the need to perform a “mitzvah,” or good deed of faith, every day. So she said receiving this particular award means a great deal.
“It’s always been an incremental part of my culture to work on improving the world as much as you possibly can,” she said. “My goal is to put that into action.”
John Finkelman: Equal Voice Initiative
Next month, John Finkelman will start his freshman year at Stanford University. That’s a great source of pride for his parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, and his grandparents, who are Russian refugees.
Although Finkelman was born in the United States, he never lost sight of the challenges his family faced when they arrived. His grandfather, now living in Boston, doesn’t speak English and he can’t drive a car. And when his father arrived in the U.S. years ago, his job prospects paled in comparison to what he could have done in Russia.
So, last year Finkelman started volunteering for the Red Cross, organizing spreadsheets for different refugee service and veterans organizations, and doing monthly public service projects. But Finkelman grew frustrated that the strict Red Cross rules prohibited him from helping refugees in ways that he knew — from his family’s experience — were really needed.
So with fellow Red Cross volunteer Eliad Amini, he founded the Equal Voice Initiative, an organization that provides life skills classes to recent refugees struggling to adjust to American rules and culture.
“It’s incredibly difficult for refugees. Imagine coming to a new country and a new city and not knowing the language, the healthcare system, where to put your money and your legal rights,” he said. “I can relate to them because I’m in-between Russian culture and American culture and it’s hard to feel uniquely one of them. It’s a mixed identity.”
The all-volunteer EVI has served more than 5,000 people, offering English as a second language classes as well as training in money management, U.S. laws and how to access health care and use public transit. The group also collects and donates to refugee families food, clothing, educational supplies and toys. It also runs refugee youth group.
Finkelman recently graduated from Canyon Crest Academy and is considering whether to major in computer science, technology or the humanities at Stanford. Getting into his dream school was the result of years of hard work, but it was also made possible by the sacrifices his parents made to give their children better opportunities in the U.S. The Finkelman family are not practicing Jews, but tikkun olam is a principle they live by, he said.
“No matter what your religion or who you are, you should help repair the world,” he said. “You have one life to help as many people as you can, especially if you’re in a position to create the resources.”
Ethan Hirschberg: The Journey Through Autism
Life hasn’t been easy for Ethan Hirschberg, who was diagnosed at age 2 with high-functioning autism. Over the years, the 18-year-old San Dieguito Academy senior has struggled with anxiety, sensory issues, bullying, emotional management problems and trouble making friends.
Then, when Hirschberg was at a particularly low point in March 2017, a youth mentor introduced him to the “creator vs. victim” theory. She told him that when there’s something in life you can’t control you have two options: feel like a victim or create the life you want to live.
“I had this a-ha moment where I realized I could do something with my life that would help others. I had this certain situation that I could use to make a difference,” he said.
Hirschberg had always found writing calming and therapeutic, so he started a blog, The Journey Through Autism, where his posts have attracted more than 40,000 readers. Some of his education-oriented posts have included how to help your child overcome sensory issues before a dental appointment; texting etiquette for individuals with autism; managing auditory sensitivity; dealing with bullying; sibling relationships; key life skills for children with autism; managing holiday expectations; and much more.
One of his primary goals with the blog is to explode the myths and stigmas that surround autism.
“There’s this idea that people with autism are geniuses or they don’t have emotions or they don’t want to make any friends. These need to be eliminated,” he said.
In mid-2017, Hirschberg started doing public speaking and has since done nearly 40 presentations for students, educators and other groups. On Aug. 1, he also published his first book, a collection of the 20 most popular posts from his blog. When he’s not in school or working on his blog, Hirschberg also runs his own small business designing websites and doing social media and search-engine optimization for clients. He plans to use his prize money for college and to expand his business.
His dream is to become a full-time motivational speaker.
Hirschberg first heard about the principle of tikkun olam at his temple and he feels his outreach to parents of children with autism fulfills that responsibility.
“It’s better to use that philosophy to make the world a better place and be able to use your own strengths to help out as much as possible,” he said.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The Sn Diego Union-Tribune