Start Me Up's new innovators

This second cohort of Start Me Up fellows includes (top row, from left) Iris Feinstein, Daniil Gunitskiy, Jeremiah Kaplan, Nicki Kaplan, Ari Mandel and (bottom row, from left) Lana Monashkin, Erin Searle, Talyah Sands, Avi Wolf and Rebecca Wolf.

Valley Beit Midrash has selected the next group of fellows for its Start Me Up! social entrepreneurship program, which aims to transform the community with innovative programming. 

“We found extremely dynamic talent with a strong balance in gender, denomination, personality and passion,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, VBM executive director. “It’s a truly remarkable group that is going to have a significant impact upon our Jewish community for decades to come.”

The fellows, all under age 45, are affiliated with a mix of local synagogues and organizations and come from a variety of backgrounds. 

“I am very excited to be part of this amazing opportunity, be able to become a leader of the Jewish community, give back and have a positive impact on others,” said Iris Feinstein, a member of Temple Solel who is originally from Paris and would like to use her personal conversion experience to create a support group and mentorship for people contemplating or going through conversion and for interfaith couples. 

Some of the fellows plan to use their professional experience as a springboard for innovation.

Phoenix native Talyah Sands is a public health professional passionate about creating health-promoting environments. 

She works at the American Lung Association as a program manager focused on promoting smoke-free policies in Maricopa County apartment communities and is an American Legacy Foundation Youth Activism Fellow, engaging youth and the community in tobacco control. As a Start Me Up! fellow, she is interested in bridging Judaic teachings with health programming throughout the Jewish community. 

As director of NOWGen programs for the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, Erin Searle oversees all programs that reach out to and engage young adults in the Greater Phoenix Jewish community. She is also involved with the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival and Generations After, an organization for descendants of Holocaust survivors. Through the fellowship, she would like to develop a program connecting young adults to Jewish community organizations; this would include leadership development training for young adults, and workshops and training for executive staff and board leadership from Jewish community organizations and synagogues.

Two of the fellows are focusing on social justice. Rebecca Wolf, a member of Congregation Or Chadash, is interested in integrating social justice education into life-cycle celebrations. Daniil Gunitskiy, director of public partnerships at Teach for America in Phoenix and a Young Jewish Phoenix board member, is interested in building a central Jewish social justice force in the broader community to create change on pressing local state and national issues.

This group of cohorts includes one married couple. Jeremiah Kaplan, who grew up in Memphis as the son of a cantor, moved to Phoenix in 1996 and was involved in BBYO in high school and Jewish Arizonans on Campus (JAC) in college. Through the fellowship, he plans to develop D’Var Guitar, a Jewish music appreciation and awareness group with a learning component. “It will focus on liturgical prayers and piyutim which shape our modern perspective of Jewish music,” he said. Nicki Kaplan is also interested in music and would like to create a communitywide a cappella group. “Music is such a powerful tool for not only bringing a community together but also uplifting people’s spirits,” she said. She is a licensed master social worker and would also like to create a volunteer program that makes and delivers meals to elderly and ill patients. The Kaplans are members of Temple Chai and Ahavas Torah.  

Lana Monashkin, a full-time pre-med student with the goal of being accepted into a physician assistant program, is the adviser for youth groups at Temple Solel and a professional photographer. 

Her goal is to help create a “day camp” program for seniors that includes transportation and program opportunities.

Avi Wolf, a resident of Moishe House Phoenix, which hosts programs for young Jewish professionals,  hopes to design “a smartphone app to bring together grassroots Shabbat interactions and meals as a forum for Jews to both meet others in their home city, as well as while traveling anywhere in the world.”

Ari Mandel would like to create social and professional networking programs for Jewish businesspeople. 

Programs that were created during the first Start Me Up fellowship include the The Blooming Plate, Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest, Jewish Legal Aid, Leadership Adventure Program and The Learning Shuk. The 10 new fellows were notified last week and will all come together next month for a learning session with Rabbi Sharon Brous, a visiting Valley Beit Midrash lecturer. The two-year program will include educational sessions for both groups of fellows, a mentorship program and training in management, social entreprenuership and adaptive leadership, according to Yanklowitz. The fellowship officially launches in the fall.

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