Reform Teens Honored for Tikkun Olam Efforts

January 11, 2024Crystal Hill

Every year since its inception in 2007, the Helen Diller Family Foundation has awarded $36,000 to exceptional teens who are already making an impact through the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. Two of the 2023 awardees, Romy Greenwald and David Ronnel, are also involved in NFTY. We talked with them about their projects, inspiration, and plans for the future.

ROMY GREENWALD

Romy Greenwald (she/her) is the founder of MiSendero ("my path"), which connects Spanish speakers learning English and English speakers learning Spanish through intercultural events and tutoring programs. Since Greenwald began this initiative in 2020, over 1,000 students from Florida and California have participated in MiSendero. Greenwald shared her gratitude for "the many people who have made this effort possible: my family, teachers, peers, and the Diller Teen community."

DAVID RONNEL

David Ronnel (he/him) was honored for his work combating antisemitism through education. Ronnel became a leading member of the Holocaust Education Living Proposal (HELP) Committee, which succeeded in making Holocaust education mandatory in Arkansas public schools. After this accomplishment, Ronnel founded the Arkansas Holocaust Education Award Donation (AHEAD) Fund in 2021, a nonprofit organization that recognizes educators in Arkansas who go above and beyond when teaching their students about the Holocaust.

URJ: How did you get started? What inspired you?

Greenwald: My family came to the United States from Mexico and Cuba. When my mother started school, she didn't speak English and was placed in an English learning program. I was drawn to students who were learning English thanks to our shared immigrant roots, language, and culture. They were isolated in separate classes and rarely interacted with other students.

MiSendero began as a way to help my Spanish-speaking friends feel comfortable and further explore their interests at school. I began by reaching out to people in different clubs and pairing them with Spanish-speaking students who wanted to participate. The tutoring program between English and Spanish-speaking students became the core of the organization when I realized how much these students were learning from each other. Many of my friends who were taking Spanish classes noted it would be amazing if they could practice with native speakers. This collaboration became the focus of MiSendero.

Ronnel: Growing up in Arkansas public schools, I often faced bigotry and hatred because of my religion. After learning that Arkansas was ranked 50th in a nationwide survey of Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen-Z, I knew I had to do something to provide my state with resources to combat intolerance and misinformation.

I joined a group of community members who were passionate about bringing more in-depth Holocaust education to the state of Arkansas, the Holocaust Education Living Proposal (HELP) Committee. With their support, I began to call state legislators and discuss creating a bill that would mandate an impactful Holocaust curriculum across the state.

How does your background with the Reform Movement influence your advocacy?

Greenwald: I grew up attending Congregation B'nai Brith in Santa Barbara, a Reform synagogue. I had the opportunity to meet Jews from diverse backgrounds which broadened my perspective and inspired me to explore ways cultures could positively interact with each other.

I'm especially inspired by Israel. It is an example of a nation that has successfully integrated immigrants from different backgrounds. During my gap semester in Israel, I became a proud part of the diverse story of the Jews in Israel. I was moved by the incredible lengths people would go to when helping each other. With my work, I keep in mind how people can be united by their shared values.

Ronnel: My work with the Reform Movement and NFTY Southern gave me an amazing support system who helped give me the platform to push for change and reach my goals. I am so thankful to be a part of the NFTY community, and my time with NFTY Southern gave me valuable experience in inspiring change.

Our project is deeply rooted in learning and justice. By providing quality Holocaust education, we can develop a dialogue with students on the ramifications of bullying, bigotry, stereotyping, and discrimination while encouraging tolerance, diversity, and reverence for the inherent human dignity of all citizens.

So far, what has been the most fulfilling part of your work?

Greenwald: Helping individuals become leaders and creating lasting, widespread change. I want to empower others to take on leadership roles and be an integral part of tikkun olam.

Ronnel: After our bill to mandate Holocaust education in all Arkansas public schools was signed into law, I felt so satisfied knowing that communities like mine would now have the resources to overcome hate.

What are your plans for the future?

Greenwald: I am a student at Duke University and was recently awarded an opportunity to spend the summer in Seoul, South Korea helping migrants from around the world. I am excited about this hands-on experience and plan to use the knowledge I gain into my work with MiSendero and immigrants in the United States.

Ronnel: Moving forward, we want to help support teachers' Holocaust education efforts. Thanks to the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, the AHEAD Fund has been able to reward Arkansas educators who go above and beyond in teaching the powerful lessons of the Holocaust.

Finally, what is something anyone can do to repair the world?

Greenwald: One impactful way of helping repair the world is by encouraging others to realize their potential. Offer words of encouragement, acknowledge people's strengths, and provide opportunities for them to showcase their abilities.

Ronnel: Don't be afraid to seek support from those around you. Tikkun olam is not something we can accomplish alone. It takes all of us.

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