A Young Changemaker Pays it Forward

When I’m not working as a journalist, I run my own charity events and represent a group of young Jews who do not want to give those in need a mere hand out; instead, they are passionate about giving others a hand up.

by Jessica Abo

Anyone who knows me will tell you – my family means everything to me. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the fact that I am who I am today because of the people who brought me into this world. When talking about my parents I always say, “Superman married Superwoman and they had two daughters. I’m just lucky enough to be one of them.”

My mom, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in Paris, France and came to Paterson, New Jersey with her family by boat when she was two years old. It’s hard to believe her parents survived Hitler only to come to the United States and face anti-Semitism here. My Grandpa Maurice worked several jobs at once; but, he lost his job every time he took off for a Jewish holiday because that’s when his boss would learn he was Jewish. When I think about my mom’s family I immediately think of lots of hugs and kisses, Yiddish jokes, amazing chicken noodle soup, thick French accents and a tremendous amount of Jewish pride.
When my mom was in second grade a teacher told her she would never amount to anything because her parents were immigrants. My mom was active in United Synagogue Youth (USY) of the Conservative movement, went on to become a teacher and is a respected community leader and philanthropist in my hometown to this day.

My dad also grew up in Paterson. His parents survived the Great Depression. My dad skipped three grades, started college when he was 16 and graduated from medical school in three years. But he didn’t have it easy either. My Grandpa Alex received a full scholarship to Cornell University, but couldn’t take it because he had to work in a factory to support his mom and sister.

Consequently, my dad grew up in a poor family. His parents did everything they could, like my mom’s, to give him and my uncle a Jewish and secular education.

My parents actually went to the same Hebrew School, but on opposite days, so they didn’t officially meet until they went to the same day camp at age 13. My Grandpa Alex was a Cub Scouts Master for the local Y, which enabled my dad to receive a scholarship to go to a Jewish overnight camp. My dad remembers walking to synagogue with his family, attending Hebrew school and getting meat from the kosher butcher. When I think about my father’s family, I think about the American Dream. My dad played stickball with my uncle, loved going to the circus, eating apple pie, listening to Broadway show tunes and dreaming of a better tomorrow.

That’s why wherever I go, whatever I do, I feel like I represent so much more than just my name and face. I am a living testament to my Jewish ancestors who never had an opportunity to reach their potential because the Nazis took away their hopes and dreams. I represent my parents and all they sacrificed for my sister and me, so we could be where we are today. I represent the Allentown Jewish Day School, Bnai Abraham Synagogue, Kadima, the New Jersey Y Camps, USY, Northwestern University’s Hillel, the ROI International Summit and now the UJA Federation of New York where I volunteer on several committees.

When I’m not working as a journalist, I run my own charity events and represent a group of young Jews who do not want to give those in need a mere hand out; instead, they are passionate about giving others a hand up.

When Rabbi Dave Levy called me and asked if I would be the Abraham Joshua Heschel Honor Society speaker at this year’s USY’s International Convention in New Orleans, which starts today, – I was speechless. For starters, I remember going to International Convention every year I was in high school. I counted down the days until I saw my friends from Wheels and Poland/Israel Pilgrimage. I lost my voice every year from all the singing we did throughout the week. My USY friends were the friends who were there for me all throughout high school and who are still in my life today. They were the people who understood me – why being Jewish was important to me, and why I was determined then (and still to this day) to make the world a better place. They never thought I was doing anything out of the ordinary when they heard about my latest tzedakah project, because they also believed we all have an extraordinary responsibility to repair the world in whatever we can.

So when people ask me if I’m excited to speak this week in New Orleans, I say I’m beyond excited. I’m touched and honored to be joining so many changemakers. I’m so appreciative of this opportunity; and, more than anything, I hope I can inspire every single leader and volunteer sitting in that room to believe in themselves – no matter what. I also want to acknowledge how much they’ve already accomplished and remind them how fortunate they are to be part of this community. We live in a world where we are more connected than ever before thanks to all of our forms of technology; and yet, when I spend time with teenagers they often tell me they’ve never felt more alone. I want to encourage the students coming to International Convention to keep saying “hello” to the new kid in class. I want to remind them that being nice to someone today is just as important as soliciting major funds for an organization tomorrow. I’m older than they are, and may have more life experience, but these kids are changing the world on a daily basis and I can’t wait to celebrate all of their accomplishments.

I have been antsy with anticipation for my New Orleans adventure with the USYers to arrive. I hope my grandparents are watching over me and are proud to know how much their lives shaped who I am today. And I hope they know how much I appreciate the greatest gift they ever gave me – my parents, who inspired me to change the world.

As we are all part of the same family, this week I hope to pay that gift forward to my younger cousins, the committed kids of USY who are today and tomorrow’s changemakers.

A glamorous powerhouse for good causes, actor and award-winning broadcast journalist whose career is wide-ranging, New York’s Jessica Abo also came up through the USY ranks. A self-described “Journalist by day. Social entrepreneur by choice” Abo has single-handedly planned and executed fundraisers for a variety of important social causes. Currently, she is supporting and promoting the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.