Several years ago, Benjamin Hirschfeld of New City had a conversation that changed his life.
“I was talking with my neighbor Pam Allyn, who founded LitWorld, a world literacy organization, and she told me how she was helping children in the developing world,” Hirschfeld said. “She told me they use kerosene lamps, which are expensive and cause a lot of health issues that can keep the kids out of school. Since I’d had health issues that had interfered with my own studies, I knew I had to do something.”
Hirschfeld, then 15, was true to his word. He has created an award-winning program to substitute solar lanterns for the dangerous kerosene lamps.
“I’ve always been interested in the environment, public health, and developing world economics,” said Hirschfeld, who now is 19 and entering his sophomore year at Columbia University. “As a high school freshman I got the chance to bring that all together and make a difference.”
As it happened, his encounter with Allyn took place at a Shavuot celebration.
“That’s when you study late into the night,” he said, “so that’s how the subject came up.
“Kerosene lamps put out so much smoke that it’s like the students and their families smoke two packs of cigarettes a day,” he continued. “I started small, partnering with LitWorld to provide lanterns for 20 of their students in Kibera, Kenya.”
Working with a few friends, Hirschfeld set up a small booth at a local farmers market. He raised enough money to buy the lanterns; LitWorld later brought them to Kenya.
The positive feedback spurred him to further efforts.
“It was a big moment the first time I heard how happy the students were that they could read after dark,” Hirschfeld said. “I told my parents I now truly felt like a bar mitzvah, taking my place as a man in a world that this generation needs to be responsible for.”
Hirschfeld – who has received a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for his project – traveled to Kenya in 2011 with the Children of Kibera Foundation, his group’s main partner in the country, to gather more data, seeing for himself how the lanterns have changed lives.
“I visited several of the families there who are using lanterns,” he said, eager to share the story of one such visit.
He spoke of Doreen Achieng, whose daughter attends one of the schools in Kibera through which the lanterns were distributed.
“She told me that before getting the lantern, she, her daughter, and her infant son were passing pneumonia back and forth for years,” Hirschfeld said. “Medications were expensive, and they didn’t know that breathing in the kerosene smoke was the problem.”
Once they got the solar lantern, however, “they started on their longest period of health. It was amazing to hear what a difference such a low-cost piece of technology could make to a family.”
Achieng also showed him school uniforms she has been able to sew by the lantern’s light, making extra money for the family.
“It allowed her to extend her business and make enough money from that to buy another solar lantern to send to her relatives in rural Kenya,” Hirschfeld said.
Hirschfeld’s project, Lit! Solar, has expanded a great deal since he set up his booth in the farmers market.
“We now have lots of volunteers and have gotten grants allowing us to reach more than 10,000 people so far,” he said. “With the amazing Diller Award, we will be able to double the size of the program in the coming year.”
The award, presented by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, gives recipients an honorarium of $36,000. According to a statement from the organization, the money is presented “in recognition of [the awardee’s] leadership, innovation andcommitment to making the world a better place.”
Hirschfeld’s project also has expanded beyond Kenya, now reaching families in Fiji, the Philippines, Haiti, and “even the U.S.,” he said. “Many people don’t know this but living conditions on some reservations for Native Americans are like those in third-world countries, with no electricity and the same issues of smoke inhalation.”
Hirschfeld said he is always looking for new partners and groups of students who could use lanterns. He said he has received a lot of help in that department as well as “great advice” from the We Are Family Foundation, which brings young leaders together from around the globe to network and share information.
Hirschfeld said he hasn’t yet decided what his college major will be but remains committed to expanding the solar lantern project, “though what my role will be is still to be determined. It’s work I believe in.”
He credits Jewish teachings with giving him a strong foundation for this commitment and cites, in particular, Maimonides’ hierarchy of tzedakah, holding that it is praiseworthy not just to give but to allow recipients to keep their dignity by helping others.
It was that idea that led to his “self-sustaining revolving fund financial system.”
The idea, he said, is that lantern recipients – who realize significant money savings by not having to buy fuel for the kerosene lamps – are asked to contribute a small part of their savings “to help others down the line. We’ve done studies to see what they’re saving,” he said. “We ask for much less back.”
Hirschfeld said that he takes a lot of pride in his Jewish ancestry, which gives him an extra connection to Jewish values. He noted that through his grandmother, who lives in Tenafly, “I am descended from Samuel and Israel Goldfarb, who wrote the Dreidel song and the melody to Shalom Aleichem, respectively. I can connect to that.”
For more information on Lit! Solar, go to litsolar.org.