The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation -- "person" -- with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.
Boy, could we use some now.
As the last pieces of 2008 crash down around us, there is ample evidence that mensch-hood (more properly, menschlikayt) is in short supply, at least judging by headlines. Worse, the Bernard Madoff scandal revealed a disturbing tendency to hide chicanery under the guise of do-goodery. Madoff, his middlemen and some charitable boards were doing good while doing wrong -- either out of evil, in Madoff's case, or, at best perhaps, just out of gullibility and incompetence.
So we look to The Journal's fourth annual Top Ten Mensches list to brighten our spirits and boost our hopes for a better year. As the stories here demonstrate, these are people who in the course of lives no less hectic and demanding than our own, facing temptations no less alluring than those we all confront, manage to reach out and help others, making the world a better place, day in and day out.
The Jewish Journal created this list as a response to all those lists extolling fame, money, power and hot-ness. We honor these special ten because they are just people -- menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural -- who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do to help others.
Thank you to all our mensches, and to all who offered up names for consideration. Maybe next year we'll all be candidates for the list....
Gabriel Halimi: Partying For a Cause
It was a stuttering problem that turned Gabriel Halimi into a mensch.
"I had a really bad stutter when I was kid," the now 27-year-old recalled recently. "My therapist said I needed to speak up in class and try to get myself to talk more, and then I started falling into leadership activities because it forced me to talk."
Dressed in a pink shirt and a brown blazer, Halimi looks much like the young professionals he now helps lead in the 4-year-old Beverly Hills-based nonprofit, Society of Young Philanthropists (SYP).
By day, Halimi works at ACG, a real estate consulting firm. But he recently passed the California Bar exam and said he hopes to be practicing as an attorney by February.
In addition to working full time and attending Loyola Law School, Halimi is one of 25 young professionals who helped found SYP and is currently serving as one of its board members. The philosophy behind SYP, Halimi said, is simple.
"We wanted to do well in our work," he said. "We wanted to party, and we wanted to do something bigger than ourselves, and that's kinda where SYP was born."
Halimi grew up in Los Angeles, attending Temple Emanuel Community Day School before eventually transferring to Beverly Hills public schools. But Halimi said it wasn't until college that his Jewish roots really took hold.
At UC Santa Barbara, Halimi joined the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and became immersed in its world of partying and doing good.
"He was really seen as a leader even among his peers," said Elishia Shokrian Bolour, a childhood friend who, along with Halimi, helped found SYP.
However, Halimi insists that working with SYP has demanded little self-sacrifice. Throughout the year, SYP holds events -- big, bold, boisterous events -- and rather than have all the money go to the DJ, the club or the liquor, the majority of the proceeds (about 70 percent) goes to charity.
"We just kinda wanted to get people to think in more philanthropic terms," Halimi said. "If you're going to be doing this anyway [partying], you might as well be doing it for a good cause."
On May 14, 2005, Halimi and his friends launched SYP's first event by pulling all their resources together and throwing a huge bash in Beverly Hills.
Approximately 500 young Angelenos -- mostly ages 18-30 -- raised close to $70, 000 for three Jewish organizations: IMA Foundation, which is dedicated to disaster relief in Israel; the educational foundation Magbit, which helps those in Israel gain a higher education; and Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish drug rehabilitation center in Culver City.
Halimi said his favorite SYP cause so far, however, has been one that doesn't directly involve the Jewish community: Darfur.
"It was just so beautiful," Halimi said, referring to the $45,000 SYP donated to American Jewish World Service's relief work in Darfur. "We could see beyond ourselves and recognize that there are a lot of people out there that could use our help."
"It goes to the principle of tikkun olam," healing the world, he said.
SYP is not a Jewish organization, although most of those involved have grown up within the Jewish community, and the nonprofit does not make any outright political statements.
"We don't want to take any kind of political stance that might alienate someone," he said.
The organization chooses the causes it supports democratically, allowing every member to have a say in the direction of the nonprofit.
In addition to SYP, Halimi is involved in 30 Years After, a nonprofit dedicated to uniting the Iranian American Jewish community, and the Lev Foundation, which promotes balanced, responsible living and is named in honor of Daniel Levian, a recent victim of a drunk driving accident.
When asked, Halimi said he doesn't consider himself a mensch -- he's not worthy, he claimed -- but he offered up this definition of one: "Someone who can see past themselves."
But just ask Rhoda Weisman, executive director of the Professional Leaders Project, an organization dedicated to developing the next generation of Jewish leaders. She said, "In all honesty, if you were to ask me what a definition of a mensch is, I would name you Gabe."
-- Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer
Kim Krowne: 'Hakuna Matata'Means Bringing Hope to Tanzanian Kids
Kim Krowne thought she'd be attending medical school. Instead, the 24-year-old Northridge native, a graduate of Sierra Canyon and Milken Community High School, spent most of 2007 and 2008 in Tanzania, improving the lives of orphaned children and many villagers. She's been home for the past several months and plans to return to Africa in January.
Once a "total planner," Krowne's current philosophy of life is more hakuna matata -- "there's no problem" in Swahili, a language she speaks fluently. "Obviously, this was not my plan. But I love it. There's so much work to be done," she said.
The focus of her passion is the Matumaini Child Care Center, a small three-room building in the village of Rau that houses 20 children, ages 6 to 15. Krowne discovered it in the fall of 2006 while taking a year off after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where she fulfilled her premed requirements while majoring in the sociology and anthropology of health, concentrating on Africa.
At that time, the nongovernmental, nonreligious and nonprofit Matumaini Center cared for eight children whose parents had either died of HIV/AIDS, were alcoholic or couldn't afford their care. Newly opened, it desperately needed funds for food and school fees, less than $20 annually per student. Krowne immediately e-mailed family and friends and raised $1,000.
She came home in March 2007 knowing she would return. Her last week there, she had met Michelle Kowalczyk, 27 and a nurse, and asked her to look after the kids, who then numbered 20. Kowalczyk also became enamored.
The following December, Krowne and Kowalczyk together formed a nonprofit, Knock Foundation (www.knockfoundation.org), to help solicit donations and grants. They also signed a five-year contract with Matumaini (meaning hope in Swahili) to fund the nonprofit and become decision-making partners.
When they returned to Tanzania they facilitated a host of improvements, including providing the children with nutritious meals, medical and dental care and school uniforms and supplies and paying salaries to the orphanage workers.
They also had bunk beds built in the rooms, upgraded the latrines, improved the general cleanliness and constructed a chicken coop on the property.
Their reach extends as well to the greater community in Rau and nearby villages, with the goal of making families more self-sufficient. One such effort, dubbed the Piggery Project, has provided 50 families with supplies needed to build a pig hut, as well as two pigs to raise. The families will keep some of the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and reinvest the remainder. They hope to expand the project.
They have also renovated a government medical clinic and dispensary in Shimbwe, the only health facility available to serve thousands of people in the Kilimanjaro region. In addition to repairing the clinic's roof and painting its rooms, they purchased laboratory materials and medications.
Plus, they organized a two-day life skills and HIV/AIDS seminar in conjunction with a local NGO that was attended by 100 women and children. It will become a yearly event.
To date, Krowne and Kowalczyk have raised about $85,000 and need an additional $35,000 for 2009 to sustain the current projects. They would also like to construct a new building for Matumaini, start another orphanage and help provide secondary and university education for the children, among other dreams.
Kowalczyk marvels at Krowne's ability to transcend barriers. "Kim has been able to reach people who otherwise would have been untouched," she said. "We'll be doing this for the rest of our lives."
To make a donation or for more information, visit www.knockfoundation.org, call (818) 831-6075 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor
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