After weeks of deliberation and the tally of more than 600,000 online votes, the Jewish Federations of North America has named its first Jewish Community Hero – Teaneck native Ari Teman, the founder of JCorps.
A panel of judges from outside the federation system chose Teman, 27, for the $25,000 Jewish Community Heroes prize after whittling down a list of more than 400 nominees, which also included Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck. Simon, who was nominated because of his donation of a kidney to a stranger, garnered 8,210 votes to make it into the list of top 20 semifinalists but was not chosen to be among the top five.
The Jewish Federations announced the winner Tuesday at the closing plenary session of its General Assembly in Washington. The contest was part of the federation system’s new multimillion-dollar marketing and rebranding strategy to broaden its base of support.
Teman’s organization sets up young Jews with volunteer opportunities in nine cities over three continents – all while working on virtually no budget.
“We’re all a product of a community,” Teman, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, said during a press conference after he was declared the winner. “I was raised in Teaneck and I benefited a lot from the education system in Teaneck.”
Noting that Chabad had a large share of nominees in the general pool and in the top 20, Teman credited the organization for its work and for pulling him back to Judaism after he wandered away during college. The outreach group, he added, has also had an influence on JCorps.
“Chabad is way ahead of us,” he said. “If you’re traveling somewhere in the world, in some far remote village there’s a Chabad guy willing to let you in no matter what. We’ve been able to borrow from them [the philosophy of] ‘a Jew is a Jew’ and not get into the conversation of what kind of Jew are you. We got that from Chabad.”
Teman, a standup comedian by day, runs JCorps as a volunteer on a budget that is probably less than the award he will take home. Yet the organization has enlisted some 10,000 volunteers for local community service projects in the United States, Canada, and Israel.
“This will enable us to take in a lot more volunteers rapidly without having to worry, ‘Do we have to slow it down because we can’t afford to bring more people in?'” Teman said.
He started JCorps in 2007 on something of a late-night whim, he said, about how he could meet more Jewish people.
The money will help the program expand and perhaps allow Teman to hire his first professional staff member.
“The first year we started with $300,” he said. “We like to say that if we had no money we could still keep running, which is great, because it means the money we put in is for growth.