Three Jersey activists make top 20 ‘heroes’

Three Jersey activists make top 20 ‘heroes’

Three New Jersey activists are among the 20 finalists in the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual competition to identify Jewish Community Heroes.

Next month, a panel of 18 judges will select one winner and four runners-up from among the 10 volunteers and 10 professionals who were selected by voters on the JFNA website.

“You don’t need to be Jewish to be a Jewish Community Hero, but you need to be one of three things: A Jewish person helping the Jewish world, a Jewish person helping the world at large, or a non-Jewish person helping the Jewish world,” explained Andy Neusner, senior manager of web content at JFNA and chief organizer of the contest.

The process of selecting the heroes began in August, when JFNA’s website inaugurated the nominating process.

“Anybody was allowed to participate,” Neusner told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 21 phone interview. All nominees had to be 13 or older and residents of the United States or Canada and by the time the process closed on Nov. 10, voters had 320 names to choose from.

Now that the process has winnowed down the competitors to 20, the panel will review the entries from their on-line applications. The winners will be announced Dec. 7.

The judges are Jewish leaders from areas as diverse as business, sports, education, social work, and the arts. The candidates “are an interesting mix of do-gooders inside the Jewish world and do-gooders who are Jewish and successful in other fields,” Neusner said.

The winner will receive a $25,000 grant to support his or her organization. Four smaller grants will be awarded to the runners-up.

“This is a way to say ‘thank you’ to people who are doing thankless work,” Neusner said. “We want to nurture and encourage people to do things for the Jewish community.”

The three NJ candidates:

Daniel Branovan of Livingston, director of the Thyroid Center and of the Rhinology Division at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, founded Project Chernobyl. The nonprofit is devoted to diagnosing and treating thyroid cancer among the hundreds of thousands of patients from the regions affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Among them are some of Branovan’s fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Project Chernobyl is currently investigating the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Westchester County. “My message is when making decisions regarding nuclear energy, public officials need to be fully informed about risks and benefits.”

Another project of his organization is cancer screening for first responders to the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center.

Apart from his medical work, Branovan is president of the American Forum of Russian-speaking Jewry, the leading umbrella organization for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He also serves on the board of governors of the American Jewish Committee and the extended executive of the World Zionist Organization and was one of the founding members of the international movement Doctors Against Terrorism.

Jenine Shwekey of Long Branch is the founder and director of the Special Children’s Center in Lakewood, which provides educational and recreational services for special needs children.

As a high school student in Oakhurst, Shwekey met a family with a son who had special needs. “I saw how the child was turning over the family’s life” and needed constant care, she told NJ Jewish News in a Nov. 24 interview.

So Shwekey and a friend rented an apartment — a benefactor soon provided space rent-free — to provide after-school care twice a week for the boy and a half-dozen others.

Sixteen years later, their Special Children’s Center in Lakewood is open six days a week, along with a weekend program Shwekey runs at her home. The center serves 250 families, with 80 young people in its afterschool program.

The youngsters, she said, “do music. They do art. They do gym.” The center’s 118 employees include some who have been in the afterschool program. “Our special-needs adults set the table for supper and put the food in plates.”

The center, she said, “is my life,” adding that while she doesn’t seek the limelight, “there is no greater thing than giving and trying to make a difference in the world.”

Elliot Mathias of Livingston, who’s been nominated in the “Career” category, founded the Hasbara Fellowships in 2001 after learning about the high level of pro-Palestinian activity on campuses at the start of the Second Intifada.

“I said, ‘We’ve really got to do something about this,’” he told NJ Jewish News by phone on Nov. 23.

So Mathias arranged a meeting with representatives of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “They said they felt the college campus was the number one priority in America when it came to PR for Israel.” Originally begun with seed money from the Foreign Ministry, his program is now privately funded.

His mission is to train college students to be effective pro-Israel advocates. One important part of that experience will involve taking 1,000 young people to Israel next month to give them “real training and understanding in how to promote and defend Israel on their campus.”

The challenges vary from college to college. “Every campus is different,” said Mathias. “On many campuses, students feel a strong presence defaming Israel and that makes them uncomfortable. On the other hand, students who want to promote Israel have more tools and educational opportunity than ever before.”

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