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The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards: Founder and History

“You may ask why I have focused a considerable part of our philanthropic efforts on enriching the lives of teens and developing young leaders. What better way to leave a legacy than by empowering our youth to increase their knowledge of Jewish history and culture, and to become our future leaders.” –Helen Diller

In 1997, Helen and Sanford Diller established the Helen Diller Family Foundation as a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties. This achievement was the culmination of years of philanthropic effort, in particular on Helen’s part. In 1999, the foundation seed funded the Jewish Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2001 the foundation launched the Diller Family Award for Excellence in Education, which recognizes exceptional Jewish educators with an award of $10,000. In 2003, the foundation donated $35 million to the University of California, San Francisco for the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Care Center, providing funding for a new facility for cancer research. In recognition of her achievements, Mrs. Diller was honored in 2012 with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Philanthropy from the Golden Gate chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Three years later, Mrs. Diller passed away at the age of 86. She was survived by her three children and seven grandchildren. Mrs. Diller’s daughter Jackie Safier is now the president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation.

Helen Diller grew up in San Francisco, raised by Polish immigrant parents. While studying at UC Berkeley, she met Sanford Diller, who was a student at Hastings Law School in San Francisco.

The couple wed in 1951, then spent their first few years together living in San Francisco. Helen worked as the Personnel Director at Letterman Hospital while Sanford finished law school. Money was tight and the newlyweds frequently enjoyed meals at Dillers, a restaurant owned by Sanford’s parents. Little did they know the kind of success that awaited them, or the tremendous philanthropic work that success would enable them to accomplish.

“It’s never too early, too late, or too often to make a world a better place.” -Helen Diller

By 1965, Sanford Diller had moved from real estate law into developing his own properties, establishing what would become the very successful Prometheus Real Estate Group. As the business and family grew, the Dillers began to turn their attention towards philanthropy. Helen Diller’s parents instilled strong Jewish values, including a deep sense of responsibility towards others. Mrs. Diller’s adage was: “It’s never too early, too late, or too often to make a world a better place.” In 1990, she was elected Northwestern President of the American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Five years later, Mrs. Diller was awarded the Scopus Award from Hebrew University, recognizing her philanthropy, humanitarianism, and efforts to make an exceptional cultural contribution.

“Tikkun olam is the guiding principle of my life — and education a transformative force in our world. To receive an award that not only recognizes my service and activism, but also propels me forward by enabling me to go to college is the privilege and gift of a lifetime.” -2009 recipient Erin Schrode

Supporting and empowering Jewish teens was always near to Helen’s heart and at the center of her philanthropic mission. In order to develop a generation of future Jewish leaders, the foundation established unique programming for Jewish youth, beginning in 1998 with the Diller Teen Fellows. Today, the Diller Teen Fellows is recognized as a premier leadership development program for Jewish teens. The program provides a unique model for experiencing Jewish pluralism and Peoplehood. The Diller Teen Fellows has graduated more than 3,400 alumni, leaders actively engaged in improving the future of their communities, Israel, and the Jewish people.

In 2007, programming for youth was expanded to offer the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. Helen said of this work at that time: “You may ask why I have focused a considerable part of our philanthropic efforts on enriching the lives of teens and developing young leaders. What better way to leave a legacy than by empowering our youth to increase their knowledge of Jewish history and culture, and to become our future leaders.”The Tikkun Olam Awards recognize Jewish youth who demonstrate outstanding leadership in tikkun olam — repairing the world. 2009 recipient Erin Schrode says, “Tikkun olam is the guiding principle of my life — and education a transformative force in our world. To receive an award that not only recognizes my service and activism, but also propels me forward by enabling me to go to college is the privilege and gift of a lifetime.” 2015 recipient Jessica Markowitz echoes Erin’s sentiment:

“Helen Diller has forever left her mark on this earth and as a fellow young Jewish woman trying to change the world, I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to follow in her footsteps. The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards reminded me of the importance of repairing the world. The Jewish community values giving back because it is a part of our culture and, more importantly, our responsibility. My Judaism encourages my activism every day, just like Mrs. Diller.”

When the Awards launched in 2007, five awardees were selected from California. In a 2013 interview, Mrs. Diller told the SF Gate, “I thought, ‘Why don’t we start from here and go all over the United States and offer this opportunity for young people to receive this substantial amount of money for college or for the project they have been pursuing?’ ”

2016 recipient Corinne Hindes (middle) with Awards Chairs Adele Corvin (left) and Susan Epstein (right)

That same year, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards branched out to offer awards to an additional ten teens from across the country. Since then, the Awards have continued to honor the exceptional efforts of Jewish youth, many of whom have established their own non-profits. The Awards are currently chaired by Adele Corvin, Susan Epstein, and Michael Jacobs.

Lillian Pravda, right

One young leader is Lillian Pravda, a 2014 recipient who at the age of eight created a U.S.-based global philanthropic foundation called Vision for and from Children, which is dedicated to providing eye surgeries and vision-related services for children in need across the globe. VFAFC’s ongoing work sponsors teams of ophthalmologists to deliver ocular care in the developing world, while also bringing children to the United States for sight-saving and sight-restorative surgeries. Through Lillian’s continued leadership as CEO, “Chief Eyesight Optimist,” VFAFC has helped over 26,330 children receive the gift of sight.

In addition to receipt of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, Lillian was honored with a National Jefferson Award in 2014. She and her organization have been featured in periodicals such as Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal. In 2016, Lillian presented at the Nickelodeon HALO Awards. She plans to graduate from high school in 2018.

Max Davis

Another exceptional teen honored by the Awards is 2016 recipient Max Davis, who lobbied for unaccompanied homeless youth to have access to housing and services. With the help of teens from his synagogue, he created Legislature in Action-Kids Helping Kids with the goal of passing Massachusetts House bill 135 into law, in support of the 13,000 unaccompanied homeless youth in Massachusetts. Following the establishment of the law, Max advocated for necessary funding and urged Representatives and Senators to allocate two million dollars to fund services outlined in the legislation. Max is currently working to expand his project and provide additional support for homeless youth. A student at Stoneham High School in Massachusetts, Max is slated to graduate in 2020, after which he plans to attend medical school.

Lillian and Max are just two examples of the kind of impact awardees have on their communities. “These young people are amazing,” Mrs. Diller told The J in 2012. “They come up with these unusual ideas for helping the world, and they’ve gone on to the finest universities and they continue on with their projects. It’s really interesting and very inspiring.”

“The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards have continued to enrich my life by opening doors personally and professionally. Seeing the amazing accomplishments of the winners each year inspires all of us, as alumni and friends, to continue Helen Diller’s legacy of making the world a better place.” -2009 recipient Max Einhorn

In 2017, the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards continue to honor Mrs. Diller’s legacy, providing support and encouragement to awardees. “The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards have continued to enrich my life by opening doors personally and professionally,” says 2009 recipient Max Einhorn. “Seeing the amazing accomplishments of the winners each year inspires all of us, as alumni and friends, to continue Helen Diller’s legacy of making the world a better place.”

Click here to learn more about the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.