These days Benhaz Eshrat Zaghi doesn't like talking about the hardships she faced as a Jew growing up in Iran. After the terrorist attacks on America, she says, it's not the time to draw attention to the struggles between Jews and Islamic governments. Yet, it is precisely the discrimination she experienced as a child that has fueled her passion to make the world a better place -- where everyone can live in harmony.
Zaghi had a firsthand encounter with religious discrimination as a third-grader, when she was disqualified as a finalist from a prestigious national academic competition because she was Jewish.
"My principal came up to me and said, 'You just don't have what it takes to win,'" Zaghi, 21, recalls. "That was the saddest day of my life. It could have shattered all my dreams for the future, but I was determined to make a name for myself and prove my principal wrong."
Her suppressed ambitions and energy exploded not long after she arrived in California at age 11 and began to feel at ease with the new language. Her Jewish leadership began in high school, when she established a Jewish youth group at Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda and culminated when she served as president of Pierce College's Hillel.
On Sept. 9, she received the Rabbi Richard N. Levy Distinguished Student Award, presented by the Los Angeles Hillel Council, for her many contributions to the Hillel community.
Since high school, she has volunteered for the Jewish Home for the Aging. She started out visiting the residents, playing games with them and talking to them. She later served as the Jewish Home's Pierce College liaison and currently works on fundraising development.
"They love it when someone comes and talks to them," Zaghi told The Journal. "Just saying 'How are you?' means the world to them."
Her work at the home and a summer internship at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Woodland Hills convinced her that the medical profession was the right career path for her. She recently transferred to USC's Nursing School and is interested in receiving her master's degree in nursing.
"I saw how nurses met everyday challenges and the kind of satisfaction they got from caring for and educating the sick, and seeing them leave with a smile on their face," Zaghi says.
She feels a deep commitment to the Jewish community as well as to all people, regardless of race or religion.
"That's why I chose nursing -- you reach out to the community as a whole, to anyone that needs help," she says.
Zaghi's only malevolent desire may be to settle an old score: "Now I can stand up, speak, and do what is my right without being obstructed. I wish I could go back and show my third-grade principal what I have become today."
Another young leader, Jennifer Chadorchi, chose a different path of service.
If Chadorchi were to live by a motto, it would be: "To whom much is given, much is expected."
When she was 16, she suffered from a rare form of guilt -- the guilt of having too much.
In what has become a household legend among her family and peers, she was cruising on a rainy day with her new driver's license in a brand-new car when she noticed about 200 people standing in the rain, waiting outside a food pantry for a meal. That day, when this guilt first surfaced, she realized that the only cure was to alleviate the suffering of others.
"I grew up so sheltered and so removed from homelessness that what I saw was shocking," says Chadorchi, 23. "It became very hard in my life to be able to enjoy the things I had without giving something back."
To channel her desire to help, she would go to areas where the homeless lived and give them food. Her parents, worried for her safety, told her that if she wanted to help that she needed to do it from her home turf in Beverly Hills.
So she volunteered for the West Hollywood Food Coalition, and at Beverly Hills High School where she organized fundraising and clothing drives with her classmates.
"My job wasn't to be another volunteer handing out meals," she says. "My vision was to do more."
When she entered UCLA, where she graduated last year with a degree in political science, she served as the UCLA liaison for the Food Coalition and created a credit course -- with the cooperation of the Hillel and Sociology department -- on homelessness.
Throughout high school and college, Chadorchi got students and parents of the Beverly Hills Unified School District to contribute funds, food and time to feeding the homeless. One afternoon, students from Beverly Hills public schools gathered at her home to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless.
Last year she raised $25,000 for the Food Coalition. This year, she will raise funds for the victims of the World Trade Center calamity. She hopes to find a relief organization financially similar to the coalition, in the sense that it runs with virtually no operating costs.
"I like to know exactly where the money is going," she says.
She has interned in the White House's Office of Management and Budget, where she worked on issues related to homelessness, and while public service seems like a natural career option for her, she says that for now, "It's something that's still a passion. I don't know if I'm ready to make it a job."
Chadorchi currently works as an asset manager for JDC Investments, a property management firm, which gives her the flexibility to pursue her relief work efforts.
"I was so spoiled," she says with a laugh. "I'm still spoiled, but I feel a little better, having given back."
Individuals interested in joining Chadorchi's efforts can contact her at (310) 288-0090.