Progress In a Pandemic

How becoming a Changemaker changed my own life

The Jewish Changemakers Fellowship is a program that was launched by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, empowering Jewish young adults to engage in critical Jewish education and leadership development to set them on a course to impact the world. As an inaugural member of the 2020 Jewish Changemakers cohort last summer, I had the opportunity to learn and grow with 500 other Jewish young adults.

Like so many of my peers, my senior year at USC was shaken up due to the pandemic, and I ended up graduating at home with my twin sister, Abby. Job prospects had evaporated, I needed to refocus my life, and then I learned about this new program – Jewish Changemakers.

Sam with his sister Abby

Being selected as a Jewish Changemaker during an overwhelming time was the perfect jolt of energy for me. It inspired me to take action and create positive impacts in my communities.

Through a framework of Jewish values and a mixture of individual activities (reading, listening to podcasts, and watching videos), discussions in an intimate cohort of ten fellows, as well as conversations with and presentations from elected officials and community leaders, the Changemakers curriculum focused on three areas: personal and professional development, global Jewish communities, and service and advocacy.

The content we discussed was designed to be provocative and compelling: from important and urgent topics such as Jewish inclusion, Israel and the Middle East, diversity, and peoplehood, to LGBTQ issues, antisemitism, and power. We also developed professional skills through building relationships with members of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, teachers, and field experts.

Changemakers reignited my joy to have deep, meaningful connections and learn new skills, while providing me with a terrific virtual community of people my age – so important at any time, much less during a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Without this program, I never would have gotten a chance to meet so many young adults from all around the world who share my Jewish values, each with their own special story to share. I’m so grateful for this new supportive, engaging community. As an added bonus, I grew even closer with Abby as we both were named Changemakers.

Discovering Middot – the periodic table of qualities of a mensch

One of the most meaningful days was when we focused on the core Jewish concept of middot – the values and moral laws that make up one’s good character. In the Torah, following moral laws is vital and crucial for a leader’s development. Likewise, today to make the change we seek in the world we must follow those moral laws, the “periodic table” of qualities that form a mensch from a corporeal human being – such as learning to value learning and wisdom, protect ourselves and our homelands, value our family, be mindful of and respect others, question orthodoxy and authority, and have confidence in our convictions. We must treasure these central aspects of Judaism that connect our shared history and brought forth incredible developments to society for thousands of years.

To continue being at that crux of world-changing ideas, Jews must continue to value each other, as well as to take heed of middot to improve ourselves.

Taking Action

During the Changemakers program, I took on a nightly journaling routine, writing down at least five unique things to be grateful for and thanking G-d for the blessing of each day. In focusing on the world in greater detail, seeking the good or a lesson for the future in every interaction, my goal was to consistently improve my well-being. Finding grace and things to cherish within the tremendous upheaval of everyday life, especially within a global pandemic, is an important endeavor.

Soon after the Changemakers program ended, inspired by my journaling and with a renewed focus on my well-being, I began to practice meditation to calm and center myself. I had tried it a few years back but couldn’t get it to stick. Thanks to what I learned in the Changemakers educational exercises, I started again with a renewed discipline. I’m proud to say that I’m now going on over four consecutive months of daily meditation and have inspired others to start meditating as well. It’s been crucial in helping me navigate the daily challenges, to face the uncertainties caused by the pandemic.

Discovering joys and staying calm has become a central focus of my life, especially as remote work and post-college life has caused a drastic shift in who I see and what I do every day. When we are joyful, we go through our days with an extra bounce, with more verve to create positive change in the world.

Through embodying the JFNA’s Changemaker values – Compassionate Curiosity, Practical Optimism, Humble Leadership, and Radical Inclusivity – I am focusing on bringing light into the world in the areas of society that matter to me.

Following my graduation from USC, I’ve taken positions of leadership in my community and focused on achieving a brighter future for all. Leading up to the November 2020 election, I joined fellow Changemakers in efforts to support voter registration and elect leaders who share my values and ideas about how to develop a better society.

Along with that, I’ve deepened my relationships within my alma mater, joining multiple alumni boards and helping connect those in my area. I’ve also supported my local and Jewish communities, working to help shape more opportunities for them to succeed. Many nonprofits are experiencing a drastic lack of funds and volunteers and especially during the pandemic, when their missions are as critical as ever and so many are suffering, it’s more crucial than ever to give what we can to those who are less fortunate.

Achieving Personal and Professional Fulfillment

Now, six months later, I’ve found a job working in business operations for an exciting technology company. I’m more confident than when I started, have gained more trust and responsibilities from the company leaders, and helped complete a wide array of projects that positively impact the company. In the face of challenging and steep learning curves, I dove back into the lessons from the Changemaker Fellowship – continue to embrace the tension points, learn what is relevant and impactful, take care in interacting with others, ask questions with an open mind and purpose.

Within my family, we have grown even closer, setting up routines and guidelines for life during the pandemic. Since Abby and I became Jewish Changemakers, I’ve noticed that we’ve grown stronger at discussing difficult topics and clear-eyed towards our futures. It’s all stemmed from our deep conversations that have taken place from a position of love and care. We understand each other and how to grow both individually and together.

In these challenging times, it’s critical to recenter on the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (pursuing righteousness and justice), and g’milut hasadim (acts of love and kindness). I try to embody these core aspects of Judaism each day.

Thanks to JFNA's Jewish Changemakers Fellowship, I’m more informed, healthy, and focused on accomplishing my goals. I learn something new, bring a smile to someone’s face, take care of myself, converse with friends, give thanks for my blessings – every day. Most of all, I embrace each new day and opportunity to show myself as a trusted changemaker and leader.

I look forward to having more assumptions challenged and grow with the friends I have made throughout the Fellowship. It is incumbent upon us to help solve our society’s most significant problems. I know that Jewish Changemakers will be well-equipped to lead our communities forward to their best days.

Most of all, I encourage others who are eligible to apply and go through the next iteration of Jewish Changemakers next summer!

Sam, Abby, and their parents enjoying time together outside during the pandemic


Categories: Leadership, Young Adults


February 26, 2021


Sam Sorkin