Six locals nominated as Jewish heroes

U.C. Berkeley student Sandra Cohen fought hard last year to defeat a divest-from-Israel bill in the student senate. Jewish Voice for Peace deputy director Cecilie Surasky fought just as hard to pass it.

Now, both have been nominated as Jewish Community Heroes in the third annual national contest sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Until submissions closed on Sept. 27, the online poll accepted open nominees for Jewish heroes; the public is now invited to vote, with the top vote-getters moving on to a judges’ panel. The winner, dubbed the Jewish Hero of the Year, will take home $25,000, with four runners-up getting $1,000 each.

The panel of 18 judges will also select a Federation Hero of the Year, who will receive $5,000. 

Cecilie Surasky

The nominees are divided into two categories (professional and volunteer), and the public voting, which will decide the top 10 in each category, closes Nov. 10. The operative phrase would seem to be, “Vote early, vote often” (one vote per hero per day is allowed).

Last year, more then 300,000 votes were cast, according to the website, and the winner was Jay Feinberg of Boca Raton, Fla., founder of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.

In addition to Cohen and Surasky, other local nominees include South Bay Jewish community volunteer Eleanor Dickman, U.C. Santa Cruz professor Tammi Benjamin, Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School educator Ora Gittleson-David and Dan McClosky, an East Bay volunteer who fights hunger.

Surasky is the most controversial local nominee, given that many in the Jewish community view Jewish Voice for Peace, the Oakland-based organization, as fundamentally hostile to Israel.

She says she was nominated by an Israeli rabbi who works with JVP, and that it feels “like a validation for the work I’ve been doing.”

The contest Web page has a leader board, and as of Oct. 4, she was ninth in the professional category with more than 1,300 votes.

Sandra Cohen

“I think it’s significant,” Surasky says. “I’m absolutely convinced there’s a lot of support [for JVP] among many young Jews, and the federations need to listen to the fact that this shift is real. Jews are looking for heroes that have a vision about co-existence and justice. My guess is [my nomination] will shake up some folks, and I hope it does.”

Cohen, a 21-year-old Cal senior, has no problem with Surasky’s nomination, saying, “It’s great that, like in Israel, Jews here are allowed to speak freely. [Surasky] has freedom of speech and it’s great she can exercise that. But in Arab countries you’re not allowed. So it’s funny to see people fight for that.”

Cohen’s college professor father nominated her as a hero. In part of her nomination, posted on the Jewish Heroes website, he wrote: “Usually parents are heroes of their children. Sandra is my hero. She has helped the Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley stand up for being Jewish and for Israel in a campus which is hostile towards the State of Israel.”

As a student senator, Cohen was a minority voice arguing against the divestment bill. The senate passed the bill in March 2010, but was unable to override a veto from the senate president.

“It came down to that one vote,” she recalls. “I was really lucky to be in that unique situation, strategizing with Jewish community leaders, who I think were the real heroes. We worked with them to prepare for the meetings, and to have counterarguments [which] were a big deal with 2,000 people at each meeting.”

Another nominee, Dickman, is a 70-year-old Cupertino grandmother who has devoted countless hours to Hadassah, Hillel of Silicon Valley, Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley and her pet project, the PJ Library, which puts Jewish children’s music and literature into the hands of young families.

A self-labeled “professional volunteer,” she was nominated by Rabbi Leslie Alexander of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley.

“I do only Jewish organizations because I’m dedicated to the idea of Jewish community,” Dickman says. “There are a lot of good things happening in this community. I take it as a mission to help share those good things.”

A congregant at Oakland’s Temple Sinai, McClosky is a committed volunteer in the fight against hunger. He has raised thousands of dollars for the Alameda County Food Bank over the years, and he also spearheads an annual High Holy Days and Thanksgiving turkey drive in the East Bay.

Gittleson-David coordinates the Avodah L’Olam program at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. The program teaches the importance of tzedakah by having 7th-graders take their first steps in philanthropy.

Tammi Benjamin, a Jewish studies and Hebrew professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, has been outspoken in condemning what she feels is an increasingly anti-Israel and anti-Jewish climate on university campuses. She also helped launch the Amcha Initiative, which brings together California Jewish professionals concerned for the safety of Jewish college students.

The winners of the Jewish Community Heroes contest will be announced in December. Between now and then, Dickman says she isn’t going to lose any sleep over her chances of winning.

“Once I got over the embarrassment, I decided I had won,” she says. “Because if my goal is to have a sense of community, have friends and help people doing good things, then their recognition of that is my reward.”

For information on Jewish Community Heroes, go to www.jewishcommunityheroes.org.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.