Jewish Journal

Mensches: Our third annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos

December 27, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Samantha Weiner. Photographs by Kevin Scanlon. Cover by Carvin Knowles.

Samantha Weiner. Photographs by Kevin Scanlon. Cover by Carvin Knowles.

"It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone 'a real mensch,'" writes Leo Rosten in "The Joys of Yiddish."

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.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don't. They are just people -- menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural -- who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal's third annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

We received a far greater number of worthy nominations than could make this list, but these all stood out -- in many different ways.

Thank you to all our mensches and to all who offered up names. Maybe next year we'll all be candidates for the list....

Samantha Weiner: Caring for People in Need

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor

Every other Wednesday after school, Samantha Weiner changes into navy blue scrubs and travels 35 miles from her home to the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks. There, from 5 p.m. until often 11 p.m., this Milken Community High School senior volunteers as a student intern for the nonprofit clinic, which provides primary care for about 60 working poor and homeless people from a space in the United Methodist Church. And she's been doing this since she was a freshman.

Weiner, 17, works one-on-one with the patients, taking medical histories and documenting their complaints, checking vital signs and presenting the information to the doctor. Initially she began working at the clinic because she thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to give back. But she said that her many experiences -- from assisting a homeless man with a severely infected finger to helping stabilize a diabetic patient who now leads "a healthy and happy life" -- have focused her on a future as a general practitioner.

Weiner is one of 72 high school interns who volunteer at the clinic, half of them from low-income families themselves. All of the kids are treated as part of the medical team, receiving extensive training and ongoing education from the volunteer doctors and nurses.

"Samantha stands out because she takes her work so seriously," said Lisa Safaeinili, Westminster Free Clinic's executive director. "She is kind and compassionate to all the people and makes them feel really cared about."

But that's not all that Weiner does to give back. She is on the advanced leadership track of Yozma, Milken Community High School's social action club. Last year she helped raise $1,400 for Heifer International, a nonprofit aiming to end world hunger. This year, inspired by a Ramah Seminar trip to the Nazi concentration camps in Poland, she is serving as section leader of Yozma's Darfur advocacy group, educating middle school students about Darfur and helping make backpack tags for an educational project that provides schoolchildren in Darfur with backpacks filled with books, school supplies, clothing and other necessities.

Weiner credits her family with teaching her the importance of tikkun olam. Together, among other activities, they all participate in Mitzvah Days and serve Thanksgiving meals at local shelters. She also acknowledges Heschel Day School, Milken and Camp Ramah for helping mold her community-service conscience.

But there's time for school activities, too. She's team captain and middle blocker for Milken's varsity volleyball team, though she is currently recovering from ACL knee surgery for an injury she recently sustained in the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation's volleyball championship.

In the future, she said, she would like to volunteer for Doctors Without Borders or set up health centers similar to the Westminster Free Clinic in other communities.

"This might sound corny," she said, "but there's no greater feeling than knowing I've made a difference to a person in need."

Neal Shapiro: Conscience of the Shul

by Jane Ulman, Contributing Editor When Neal Shapiro was just 8, growing up surrounded by desert in Phoenix, Ariz., he saw his first Jacques Cousteau television special and was immediately smitten with the ocean, vowing to devote his life to protecting it.

He pursued his dream by earning a bachelor's degree in marine biology at UC Santa Barbara and a master's degree in marine policy at the University of Maryland. After graduation, Shapiro spent a decade with The Jacques Cousteau Society. More recently, for the past eight years he has worked for the city of Santa Monica's Environmental Programs Division, overseeing water conservation and urban runoff management programs.

As an adult, Shapiro has also became increasingly Judaically observant, transitioning from Reform to Modern Orthodox after graduate school, and along the way he has melded his ecological passions with Judaic principles, expanding his environmental activities into his private life, as well.

For Tu B'Shevat in 2000, and again in 2001, Shapiro spearheaded B'nai David-Judea Congregation's community tree planting, helping to beautify and provide shade along Pico Boulevard with nearly 100 Chinese flame trees. He continues to co-organize annual plantings, and this year, like last, is also helping facilitate plantings in private homes' parkways, between the curb and sidewalk.

Shapiro's efforts extend indoors, too. Since last spring, he has promoted reusable Kiddush kits, but though he has sold about a dozen, he said, only two or three congregants regularly use them. "I'm trying to change behavior," he admitted.

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