When the umbrella organization of North American Jewish communities launched its new campaign to shine a spotlight on local leaders and activists, few people thought the Internet-based Jewish Community Heroes contest would have quite the impact or buzz it’s garnered for several months, least of all the 20 top vote-getters announced this month.

Rabbi Moshe Engel, whose work to make Jewish educational and communal programming more inclusive earned him 22,111 votes out of more than 500,000 cast, and fifth place, echoed similar sentiments when he said that he was honored to be among a cadre of well-deserving nominees.

“The campaign has a great purpose,” said Engel, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Long Beach, Calif., “but I didn’t do anything more than anyone else.”

Organized by United Jewish Communities, whose board recently decided to change its name to Jewish Federations of North America, the campaign asked rank-and-file Jews to nominate individuals who have positively affected the lives of others. By the time nominations closed in late September, more than 440 people had been nominated. The semi-finalists – of whom an independent board will select five finalists and one winner of a $25,000 prize – include 12 Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim, among them 10 Chabad House directors.

While Engel was flattered at his vote tally, his community members were confident that the associate director of Congregation Lubavitch in Long Beach – who also serves as special program director of Hebrew Academy Chabad in nearby Huntington Beach – deserved a spot in the winners’ circle. They cited, among other things, the rabbi’s personal commitment to raising funds to cover scholarships for needy students, his annual Chanukah party for community members with special needs, and a hospital visitation campaign, all of which he conducts in addition to his full-time teaching schedule.

For his part, Engel credited the contest with an increased awareness of Hebrew Academy’s scholarship fund.

“Before, not everyone understood how many families need help, and now the community is more aware,” he explained. “This has raised awareness more than I could have on my own.”

Other nominees also cited publicity for their causes as one of the contest’s chief benefits. Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of the anti-missionary organization Jews for Judaism International, said that he was pleased by his seventh place finish. He quickly added that regardless of who receives the grand prize, the contest has already helped Jewish communal activists network with one another, and nominees reach more people.

“I received a phone call recently from a [Jewish] woman who was about to convert,” explained Kravitz, who has been working to strengthen Jews’ knowledge of their own religious identity for 25 years. “This woman decided to Google the word Jewish just to see what came up, and the first thing that came up with the Jewish Community Heroes contest.

“On my profile, I had asked that a link be added to a free downloadable book that refuted some basic claims of missionaries,” continued Kravitz. “She downloaded it, read it, and then called me to say that she’s no longer considering conversion and would like to know more about Judaism.”

In addition, said the rabbi, he was able to refer a contact of his to Devora Benjamin – the contest’s third-place nominee – after learning of her existence through the campaign.

“I had heard there was someone who helped cover wedding expenses for those who couldn’t pay for their own wedding,” the Los Angeles-based Kravitz said of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Benjamin, “but I only found out through the nominee list.”

Pearl Krasnjansky, co-director of Chabad of Hawaii, received the 10th-most votes in the contest.
Pearl Krasnjansky, co-director of Chabad of Hawaii, received the 10th-most votes in the contest.

Seeing a Need

Having helped thousands of couples marry since she began her volunteer work in 1992, Benjamin was surprised at her popularity in the contest, refusing to characterize what she does as hard work.

“I do it because I enjoy it,” said Benjamin, who often goes door to door in the Jewish community of Crown Heights to collect money to pay for needy couple’s weddings. “I feel strongly that everyone deserves a beautiful wedding, and I love seeing them so happy when the wedding day arrives.”

Like many of the contest’s nominees, Benjamin did not set out with a specific agenda when she started work in the community. She simply saw people who needed help, did what she could, and the project grew organically: What began as an effort to help one friend pay for a wedding gown today is a recognized non-profit organization with an annual budget of $500,000 and an additional $250,000 in donated goods. Any given week in Benjamin’s neighborhood, at least one wedding has been entirely paid through her project.

Friends of Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, the 11th-place nominee, said his story of helping hurricane evacuees was similar in that he saw a need and acted. When Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans in 2005, Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad of Uptown in Houston, Texas, was among many in his city who provided food, clothing and shelter for the arriving evacuees from Louisiana. In addition, he organized kosher food distributions for New Orleans’ fleeing Jews and ensured that they had a place to stay near a synagogue.

Three years later, when Hurricane Ike struck his own city, Lazaroff was back in action. Himself without electricity for 10 days and living in a home damaged from the winds, he organized a kosher barbeque for residents of a nearby retirement home, and arranged for out-of-state residents to ship food to Houston residents for the approaching Shabbat.

“My dad was one of the people who helped Rabbi Lazaroff deliver the food. They finished just minutes before Shabbat,” recalled community member Becky Kazoff. “All week long he worked non-stop, handing out food, and also tarps and cardboard for people to protect their houses from the rains that came in the aftermath, and that is just one week of what he does.

“Every day he is helping people in so many ways,” continued Kazoff, who teaches high school students as part of a local post-bar and bat-mitzvah program. “I think it is just awesome that he is a semi-finalist.”

The nominees praised the UJC for exposing their work to a larger pool of potential supporters and volunteers.

The contest, said Kravitz, shows “how many people are working to preserve Judaism and Jewish values, each in their own way.”

“This contest,” concurred Engel, “has raised a massive awareness of how many people are out there doing beautiful things for the Jewish community.”