Washington – Hillel International has selected four young leaders, two in high school and two in college, to receive scholarship awards in recognition of their volunteerism and commitment to their communities.
This year’s recipients of the $4,000 Handeli First-Year Student Scholarship are Elijah Harris, a high school senior from West Hartford, CT, who plans to attend Brown University in the fall; and Elizabeth Shvarts, a high school senior from Staten Island, NY, who plans to attend Yale University this fall. For this year’s $4,000 Campus Leadership Award, Hillel International has selected Aharon Grama, a junior at CUNY, Brooklyn College, studying philosophy and law; and Ethan Voskoff, a sophomore at Northwestern University studying political science.
“From incoming freshmen to seniors, student leaders are at the center of the Hillel movement,” said Hillel International President and CEO Adam Lehman. “This year’s Handeli and Campus Leadership recipients embody the essence of tikkun olam — to repair the world — by impacting meaningful change in their communities.”
As a high school student, Elijah enrolled in an intensive program to become a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). As the only Spanish speaker in the ambulance one night, Elijah was able to interpret what a non-English speaking patient was feeling and what medical attention was required. While the experience was challenging, it allowed Elijah to serve his community and confirm his plan to become a bilingual doctor serving marginalized communities.
Describing his childhood as a biracial Jew, Elijah shared, “My mom is white and Jewish. My dad is Black and a non-practicing Christian. My parents told me how special I am to be part of two extraordinary groups of people. But, given the duality, I long believed I could only be one or the other. Over the years I have learned to become more comfortable coexisting in both identities and that is in large part due to all of the different communities I am a part of through being Jewish.”
Elizabeth co-founded Bridge to Literacy in 2019, a year after participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Preparing for the competition, one of the most elite in the country, she realized that basic literacy education is inaccessible to millions of geographically and financially disadvantaged students around the world. Since its founding, Bridge for Literacy has united over 150 mentors and students across 6 continents and 17 countries. Under Elizabeth’s leadership as Co-Executive Director, Bridge to Literacy has collected $20,000 worth of electronic devices to expand student access to live, virtual instruction.
Elizabeth said that Judaism’s focus on tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” is present in many aspects of her life. “Whether it’s leading a nonprofit created by youth for youth to foster a love of language, or using my platform as NYC Youth Poet Laureate to help create empathy-driven art,” she said, “my interpretation of tikkun olam means sparking civic engagement and reimagining of joy as a birthright, and, above all, anchoring ourselves in the promise of community.”
At Brooklyn College, Aharon leads a student government that represents the collaboration of the two largest communities on campus: Jewish students and Muslim students. Aharon, a Yemenite Jew, and his co-president, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, ran on a platform of uniting two very different groups on campus. Under their leadership, Brooklyn College’s student government formed one of the most diverse cabinets in its history, engaged in new communication methods with students and administrators, and established a website to provide student resources during the pandemic.
Reflecting on his experience in Israel, witnessing the diversity of the Jewish community first-hand, Aharon said, “This moment is when I realized that Jewish to me means finding my own voice and my own way within a heritage that was passed down to me and a heritage I hope to pass down to my children. We are in an incredible time today where being Jewish is a choice, we have this incredible freedom to begin critically thinking about how Judaism shows up in our own lives on our own terms.”
Ethan’s contribution was inspired by watching nurses, first responders, and local government officials working on the front lines respond to the pandemic. He worked with peers to facilitate food deliveries from local supermarkets to underprivileged residents in his hometown, tutored senior citizens on using various online platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts to communicate, and helped set and communicate a weekly agenda to the student body as an elected member of student government.
Growing up, Ethan faced experiences of anti-Semitism and feeling different from his peers that taught him what it means to be Jewish. “Judaism is a powerful marker of shared common values: education, family, and togetherness. Judaism means putting in three times the effort of everyone else just to level out the playing field. Judaism is resilience,” he said.
Hillel International also offers a comprehensive Scholarships Portal, which lists over 600 scholarships in the Jewish world for current high school, undergraduate, and graduate students. Applications for the 2023-24 school year Campus Leadership and Handeli First-Year scholarships will open this November, and students can apply through March 1, 2023.