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Winners of Charlie Awards Show How Birthright is Having an Impact

January 13, 2004
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For Lach Litwer, a free trip to the Jewish state on the birthright israel program was the personal turning point that touched him as a Jew and jumpstarted his work speaking out for Israel at the University of Oregon.

Litwer, a 24-year-old student, was one of six graduates of birthright israel to receive one of the first annual Charlie Awards for returning home from the program and giving back to the local Jewish community in a meaningful way.

One of the open questions about the ambitious, $210 million program that sends young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 to 26 to Israel for free 10-day educational trips is whether they will emerge afterward as empowered activists in the Jewish community.

The program aims to boost Jewish identity among Diaspora youth and foster ties between them and Israel Israel and their own Jewish communities.

Without coming to Israel, “I would not have had any understanding of how important it is,” Litwer said in Jerusalem after receiving the award at the official residence of Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

“The communities stand to gain” from birthright, he said. “It’s investing, it’s creating organizers. People come back fired up about the Jewish community and wanting to make a difference.”

Litwer long had been involved in social-action projects but only recently had turned his attention to the Jewish community. After going on birthright, he found himself at the center of Israel advocacy efforts at the University of Oregon, where he is studying psychology.

He became the AIPAC liaison to the state of Oregon and was selected as the Grinspoon Israel advocacy intern for the 2003-04 academic year at his campus Hillel, where he has helped train a corps of underclassmen to speak out in support of Israel.

The Charlie Awards were founded by Lynn Schusterman in honor of her late husband, Charles Schusterman, one of the founders of birthright, which has brought some 60,000 young Diaspora Jews on free trips to Israel.

“They took the gift of birthright and incorporated it into their daily lives,” Schusterman said as she presented the awards. “They spread their love of Israel and connection to Israel and spread it to as many people as possible.”

The winners were people who had moved from the ranks of the uninvolved to community activism, personifying the success of birthright’s mission, Schusterman said.

“Birthright is a catalyst,” she said. We “want them to go home and do something with it.”

Winners of the Charlie Awards were selected from across the globe. Two were from the United States — Litwer and Los Angeles native Kimberly Gordon, 27, who helped form a group of young Jewish leaders in her area.

Elena Kotova Arenkova, 24, of St. Petersburg, Russia, was chosen for various activities, including founding the St. Petersburg Hillel Klezmer Band, which now performs across the country.

Jonathan Cohen Lozie, 23, who volunteers as a security officer at Jewish communal events and agencies, was recognized for his work organizing birthright graduates in Buenos Aires and generating interest in Israel there.

Johanna Herman, 22, won for her successful outreach as Hillel public-relations coordinator at the University of Toronto.

Kostya Mogilevych, 21, a Ukrainian immigrant now serving in the Israeli navy, also was honored. His interactions four years ago with a visiting birthright group led him to go on a tour of Jewish summer camps in Canada to promote Israel.

The six each received $1,800. They are to divide the money between a charity in Israel and another of their choosing in their home communities.

Having lunch together at a Jerusalem cafe, the winners listened to Schusterman, a leading philanthropist in the Jewish world, describe the process of choosing a cause.

“Each of you is going to have to sit down and look within yourselves and decide what is important to you,” she said.

Gordon said she planned to give the money to culture-related organizations. She said her birthright trip has helped mold her sense of Jewish identity and, in turn, her commitment to her Jewish community.

“I had a deeply rooted sense of American history and my identity as an American, and it was not until my birthright trip — where we ended up digging in caves and everything was 2,000 years old — that I connected with my own Jewish history,” she said. “You have to be in the land to connect with it.”

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