Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards Committee member Michael Mellen and 2015 awardee Jessica Markowitz had never met when they were matched through the Diller Teen Awards’ mentorship program last winter. Nevertheless, they each brought curiosity and enthusiasm to the table at their first meeting over lunch in New York City.
Michael had previously acted as a mentor and was interested in opportunities to further support the Diller Teen Awards, as well as past awardees. “I like having the opportunity to share what I can and connect with someone [doing meaningful work],” Michael says. He was also prepared for Jessica to be an especially accomplished mentee. When he first volunteered to review applications for the Awards, a friend and fellow reviewer advised Michael that reading applications might cause him to feel like it’s the teens who should be mentoring the adults. “There is the sense of, oh my G-d, you’ve done pretty cool work,” he adds.
Michael provided Jessica with opportunities for reflection and connection, while introducing her to several interesting people who could support her goals. “One of the funniest things that happened was that Michael realized how well I would connect with his wife, due to our similar interests,” Jessica says. Michael’s wife Amy proved to be “an amazing connector” and had several ideas relevant to corporate social responsibility.
Michael also introduced Jessica to a friend of his who had completed the CORO fellowship, prompting Jessica to become interested in learning more about the opportunity. “Michael has helped me think about my future academically, in my non-profit, and career-wise,” Jessica says. “It is helpful to have someone who has both lived abroad, has Jewish interests, and also enjoys working directly with people.”
Michael is an executive, organizational, and life coach with his company, Lynx Coaching. Ordained as a rabbi in 1998, Michael served as a congregational rabbi and educator at Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia, as Director of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), and as a consultant with The Jewish Education Project in New York. He has worked with businesses, non-profits, synagogues, summer camps, HUC-JIR, and the Davidson School at JTS.
Over the course of Michael’s meetings with Jessica, he was struck by her commitment to her organization Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE, the project for which Jessica was honored with a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award in 2015.
When Jessica was 11 years old, a representative named Richard Kananga from the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission in Rwanda came to stay with her family. During that time, Jessica heard Richard’s stories about the 1994 genocide, which had a profound impact on her. She was inspired to launch what would become Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE, a non-profit providing financial support to low-income girls in the rural area of Nyamata, Rwanda in order to enable them to finish their primary education and six years of secondary school. Through the completion of their education, the organization works to enhance young women’s ability to earn an income and become leaders in their community.
To Michael, Jessica’s desire to see Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE continue and evolve was clear. He was impressed by Jessica’s honest commitment to doing meaningful, game-changing work in the world, while also trying to figure out how to contribute in a way that would allow her to meet personal goals. “She operates from a place of generosity, while also wanting to grow,” Michael says.
Currently, Jessica is a senior at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she studies Social Justice, Politics, and Criminal Law, and is also an intern at American Jewish Committee working to combat anti-Semitism and extremism, while protecting human rights. In addition, Jessica is planning for her post-graduation future and is applying for the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps, through which she hopes to serve for one year in a Jewish community abroad.
Michael was also moved by Jessica’s acknowledgment of her own privilege and the ways she expressed gratitude for the gifts life has given her. He noted that while Jessica is proud of the organization she has built, she seems even prouder of the girls and women who have been empowered by the opportunities her organization offers.
It’s no surprise that Jessica is further contributing to the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards mentorship program by becoming a peer mentor herself: in her role as a mentor, she is able to collaborate and brainstorm with a 2017 Award recipient, with whom she can share her experience of transitioning her project through her college career and beyond. “Mentorship is a crucial part of learning and growing and can only further one’s skills and abilities,” she says.
Michael encourages other committee members to join the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards mentorship program: “It’s enjoyable and it’s a chance to give back with some really cool people.” It’s wonderful, he says, to be able to provide a boost to such promising young people.