Student finalists, their families, and members of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Jewish Committee met on May 11 for the annual Simon Lazarus Jr. award ceremony. Held at Rockdale Temple, the awards are the culmination of an essay contest for high school students in the Cincinnati area.
One of this year’s winners was Grace Santa, a senior at Cincinnati Christian Hills Academy, who participated in multiple service projects.
“I love [public] service and helping my classmates figure out what they’re good at – because that’s what I do in my school, I help others use their gifts,” Santa said. “[For one of my projects] I helped one girl get organized to make a group so she could bring dogs to school as support animals.”
The awards are named for a former leader of the American Jewish Committee, Simon Lazarus Jr. He led the Cincinnati regional AJC as president from 1951-53. Lazarus was involved with the precursor to the Cincinnati Human relations commission, and was a member of the AJC national Board of Governors.
The essay contest was held in his memory, with students prompted to write about their volunteer and service work to make their communities better.
“This year we had 28 students apply from 16 different schools,” said Justin Kirschner, regional director of the AJC.
Over the years many local highschools have nominated students for the award. The winners received $750 and the runners up received $350. Along with the prize money each year the students are given a book chosen by the AJC committee to help them on their journey as young adults.
This year they were given a copy of “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” by Anna Quindlen. Part of the AJC’s mission is to fight antisemitism so each school receives a copy of the AJC publication “Translate Hate Glossary,” a guide to the many forms antisemitism takes and how to counter them.
The essays are read by a committee made up of members of the Jewish community who then narrow down the list of applicants to 10 juniors and seniors, and send those essays to 5 judges who choose who the winners will be.
“Students who are chosen demonstrate a commitment to community service and repairing the world,” Kirschner said. Though the winners span Jews and non-Jews, they show the importance of “the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).”
“I was not prepared to be so blown away by the applicants,” Marilyn Zayas, one of the judges, said. “And to recognize that all of these applicants are light years ahead of where I was [at their age.]”
John Brownlee, another judge, was equally impressed with the quality of the candidates. “It was a reminder that there are about a million different ways that you can do public service oriented work,” he said. “It was stunning to see the broad diversity of ways to put good energy into the world.”
The awards serve not only as a way to honor students but to also a way to bolster community relations by creating positive connections between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community in Cincinnati.
“We have a bigger mission and a purpose here, [and that is] to eradicate extremism,” Kirschner said. “And we know that antisemitism forms the core of so many extremist ideologies.”
Amid the rise of antisemitic incidents over the past few years, Kirschner said the AJC’s “Translate Hate Glossary” is being put to good use by schools, even those with little connection to the Jewish community.
“Late last year, we received an email from a guidance counselor at a Christian private school, telling us how much they learned from that glossary,” Kirschner said.
“They can pass it around to school administration and teachers, just to have it as a resource, so that they can use it in tabletop discussions,” he said. “To hear that from a non-Jewish community, especially in a school space, is heartening.”