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The Changemakers Next Door

You don’t have to go far to find people in the AJWS network who are making waves for social justice. These three young changemakers—members of AJWS’s action and philanthropy programs Pursue and Global Circle—are making an impact on the world right from their own communities.

By Leah Kaplan Robins

Running for Global Change

Ilana Shapiro demonstrates that you don’t have to leave New York to make a big difference in the Global South; in fact, her feet are extremely grounded.

Shapiro is one of 10 runners on the AJWS team for the 2011 New York City Marathon. She is running to support people struggling to overcome poverty, but she is also dedicating her miles to someone else: her dad. Eric Shapiro, who passed away in 2007, was an avid walker/jogger and lived and breathed tikkun olam—the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place.

In her dad’s memory, Shapiro has raised $67,000 for AJWS so far, to fund scholarships for Alternative Breaks—the overseas volunteer program that inspired her to get involved with global justice causes when she was a student at Brandeis. The fund in her dad’s name has already awarded three scholarships to college students and recent graduates, and will continue to enable young people to visit developing countries and volunteer with grassroots NGOs fighting poverty in their communities.

Shapiro’s marathon journey began last year, when, as an active member of AJWS Global Circle, she decided to merge the two passions that her father instilled in her. She advocated for AJWS to become a Charity Partner of the ING NYC Marathon—a dream that finally came to fruition this spring. Thanks to Shapiro, AJWS is now raising more money to fight poverty and promote Jewish service; and this month, she will be one of 10 AJWS marathoners supporting global justice with their minds, bodies and “soles.”

“AJWS embodies the true meaning of tzedakah, which is how my father lived his life: helping others in need and healing the sick,” she says. “I’m proud to have my dad’s name and legacy commemorated by AJWS. As I train for the marathon and tell my friends and family, the donations have been pouring in. People recognize when someone is truly passionate about something and are willing to donate money to that cause.”

International Service Inspires Activism

Nathaniel Berman, a Washington, D.C.-based alumnus of AJWS Volunteer Summer 1999, is a local activist who applies global inspiration to his work to promote the rights of workers and immigrants.

He is a leader in two Jewish social justice organizations—Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) and Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Last summer, he chaired JUFJ’s Day Laborer Justice campaign and is currently the organization’s representative on the D.C. Wage Theft Prevention Coalition. He is also community service chair of HIAS’s Young Leaders D.C. Steering Committee—and, as a passionate proponent of immigration reform, he has worked with HIAS to advocate for implementation of the DREAM Act.

Berman maintains that AJWS helped inspire this path: “I would not be involved in any of these programs today if it were not for having traveled to Zimbabwe with AJWS 12 years ago. AJWS showed me what Jewish social justice was really all about, and I have done whatever I can since then to help improve the lives of others.” He derives inspiration for his work on labor and immigration rights from AJWS grantees in developing countries who work to defend the rights of exploited workers and vulnerable refugee populations.

Berman also learned from AJWS to bring a Jewish voice to all of his work. He infuses letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations with insight and moral guidance from Jewish text, and will hone that skill and other activism techniques this year as a JUFJ Jeremiah Fellow, through a nine-month course for activists on organizing, advocacy and Jewish study.

As an active alumnus, Berman is involved in AJWS’s Pursue community, which invited him, in July, to join the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable’s White House Community Leaders Briefing Day. He and 169 Jewish changemakers met with administration officials and raised social justice issues like AJWS’s work around food aid and the 2012 Farm Bill. He credits Pursue and AJWS with helping to unify and strengthen Jewish initiatives for social change in the D.C. area. “Working with other groups that are similarly inclined and passionate about this work,” he says, “just amplifies what a positive impact all these groups can make together, both locally and globally.”

While much of Berman’s daily work is locally focused, he says that AJWS “transformed me into a global thinker. Whenever I hear now about things like threats to foreign aid, I think about the impacts that I saw and felt in Zimbabwe and it keeps me hopeful and optimistic, and keeps me wanting to learn what more I can do. I can always count on AJWS to keep me involved and connected to the global issues that I am now inspired to continue to impact myself.”

Farming Sows Self-Sufficiency in the U.S. and Around the Globe

45.7 million Americans depend on food stamps to feed their families. But because the stamps don’t go very far, many people use them to buy cheap processed foods. When Pursue member Daniel Bowman Simon stumbled across a little-known line in the U.S. Farm Bill dictating that food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—or “SNAP”) can be used to buy seeds and plants, a light bulb went off. Already an advocate in the community garden movement—in 2008 he campaigned for the White House to plant its now famous vegetable garden—it was a natural transition for Simon to launch “SNAP Gardens,” a project that aims to give food stamps a greener thumb.

By using their SNAP benefits to grow gardens, people can turn just a few dollars worth of seeds or plants into a bounty of fresh veggies—his website (www.snapgardens.org) explains. Sounds simple, but, of course, actually using food stamps to garden isn’t so easy when most grocery stores don’t sell edible plants and gardening stores can’t accept food stamps.

Simon set his sights on farmers’ markets (many of which accept stamps and sell plants). He has peppered markets in 24 states and Washington, D.C., with posters declaring “Grow Your Food Stamps,” and he is currently developing toolkits to help market managers, farmers and government officials publicize and facilitate food-stamp gardening. To circumvent some of the natural challenges of growing food in low-income areas, he is partnering with organizations and individuals who already have the tools and wherewithal to garden successfully. These early adopters will help get the word out and share skills and tips with others.

As the country’s current expert on the topic, Simon receives a constant stream of phone calls and e-mails asking for information and support and has been invited to give a webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the fall. He hopes that anyone reading this will help build his movement by passing the news along to local farmers’ markets and organizations that work with Food Stamp recipients. Not all farmers’ markets accept food stamps yet, and voices from the community can encourage them to do so.

» Get involved in social change by joining Pursue or Global Circle, AJWS’s communities of next-generation activists and philanthropists.


As a local advocate with global awareness, Simon believes that encouraging gardening as a solution to hunger here in the U.S. could have a ripple effect around the world: “Anything that elevates gardening as part of the solution here in America has the power to influence policy worldwide,” he says. “It can also influence hearts and minds and provide inspiration to boost self-sufficiency and food sovereignty wherever people might be able to grow some of their own food.”

Indeed, Simon’s work in the U.S. echoes efforts by AJWS grantees in developing countries to build local people’s capacity to grow their own food while supporting economic growth.

Simon has been a key member of AJWS’s food justice community, and spoke last year at Pursue’s “Growing Food Justice” event.

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About AJWS

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. AJWS is dedicated to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among the people of the developing world regardless of race, religion or nationality. Through grants to grassroots organizations, volunteer service, advocacy and education, AJWS fosters civil society, sustainable development and human rights for all people, while promoting the values and responsibilities of global citizenship within the Jewish community.

AJWS has received an “A” rating from the American Institute of Philanthropy since 2004 and a four-star rating from Charity Navigator for nine years. AJWS also meets all 20 of Better Business Bureau’s standards for charity accountability.


Join the chorus on Global Voices, AJWS’s new blog about grassroots development and global justice.

Watch recent Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee speak about her work as a peace activist, her relationship with AJWS, and her vision for the future.

You’ve heard about AJWS’s campaign, Reverse Hunger. Listen to what Ruth Messinger has to say about food justice.

Coming this fall! “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” an exhibit presented by AJWS and the L.A. Skirball Cultural Center.

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