Diller Teen Award winners including two from Bay Area get $36,000 each

In March, as his high school classmates were making plans for spring break, Gabe Ferrick was organizing his third annual Walk to End Genocide — which would go on to attract more than 200 people and raise over $17,000 for victims of genocide in Darfur.

And over his last summer vacation, when most 15-year-olds are relishing freedom from their school grounds, Naftali Moed was hard at work raising grant money for a sustainable urban garden on his campus.

Each local teen has been recognized for his efforts with a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, a prestigious honor bestowed by the Helen Diller Family Foundation (in partnership with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation) in recognition of outstanding social justice work. Every year since 2006, 125 of California’s most driven teens are nominated for the awards, which are presented to five winners. Each award winner receives $36,000 in honor of their commitment to the Jewish precept of “repairing the world.”


Diller Teen Award winner Gabe Ferrick hangs out with Jimmy, a young man whose parents were murdered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, during Ferrick’s trip to Rwamagana, Rwanda.

To hear Ferrick and Moed tell it, they’re just getting started.


Ferrick, 16, said his activism is driven by a commitment to end genocide around the world — a passion he’s held from a young age. Now an incoming junior at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, Ferrick says he first learned about the genocide in Darfur during a humanities course in the fifth grade.

“When I heard what was happening there, it just stuck with me,” he says. “So in seventh grade, when it came time to do my bar mitzvah project, I went to my rabbi [at Congregation Shomrei Torah] and said ‘How can I help children in Darfur?’”

Rabbi George Gittleman helped him get in touch with the Southern California–based nonprofit Jewish World Watch, which provides humanitarian aid to conflict zones, with a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Ferrick raised $16,000 for the organization’s Backpack Project, bringing shoes, school supplies, toothpaste and other essentials to nearly 500 children in the Oure Cassoni refugee camp in Chad.

As his bar mitzvah came and went, Ferrick says he found himself more driven than ever to keep spreading the word about how easy it was to help. When Jewish World Watch invited Ferrick (then an eighth-grader) to participate in its annual Walk To End Genocide, Ferrick declined — because he wanted to launch a similar event in Northern California.

His Santa Rosa–based Walk to End Genocide, now in its third year, has raised more than $40,000 to date for those suffering the consequences of genocide in Darfur.

This year, at the start of his summer vacation, Ferrick traveled to Rwanda with his mother to volunteer in a school for 12 days through the Rwanda School Project. The teen says he was awed by the level of compassion in the communities there.

“It was amazing, for a country that had 800,000 of its citizens killed in under three months just 17 years ago … they were just so welcoming to an outsider,” he recalls. “Quite a few of the children were orphaned as a result of the genocide, and they were calling me brother, and saying my mom was their mom. It was an incredible experience, and I really want to go back.”

Ferrick says he plans to donate some of his award money to Jewish World Watch, some to the Rwanda School Project and some to Shomrei Torah. More than anything, he’s sure his life as an activist is only beginning.

“When you see things like what I saw in Rwanda, and you think ‘this keeps happening’ … I mean, you can’t just do one thing and then stop. You keep doing it.”

His fellow award-winner, Naftali Moed, also 16, can relate. For Moed, what began as a love of gardening — nurtured by summers spent digging, planting, watering and weeding at Camp Tawonga — blossomed into a full-fledged sense of environmentalism and commitment to work on food justice issues.


Naftali Moed waters plants in the garden of his Pacifica high school.

As an eighth-grader at Ocean Shore School in Pacifica, Moed was a regular volunteer at the school’s community garden, which eventually inspired him to start his own garden at home. But it wasn’t until the next year, when he visited Pescadero’s Pie Ranch, that he began to see his interest in gardening as tied to larger issues.


A 9-year-old nonprofit and working farm, Pie Ranch seeks to inspire and connect people with the source of their food, and provides education and outreach about how to make food systems that are healthier and more sustainable. After a class visit through Oceana High School, Moed went to live and work at Pie Ranch for a week.

“It was working there that inspired me to think about [gardening] as a much more global issue,” said Moed. “I’d always known that there were issues regarding food justice, but that really opened my eyes to them.”

Soon after, in the summer of 2009, Pie Ranch selected him as one of three representatives to attend the Rooted in Community Conference in Portland, Maine. There, Moed participated in leadership training seminars, and learned how to help educate his peers on issues of environmentalism and sustainability.

When he returned, there was no question that his next step would be to start a community garden at Oceana High. Working with the school, Pie Ranch and other local organizations such as Get Healthy San Mateo, Moed created a sustainable urban garden that serves as a hands-on learning experience for the school community and beyond.

Moed said the project took off faster than he was expecting.

“It’s been really nice for me to see my friends involved, but it’s almost nicer to see people I might never have met otherwise coming out in large numbers,” he said. “People are really excited to help plan and brainstorm, and we’re at a point where volunteers can have a really meaningful contribution — where people can question, ‘Hey, would it make more sense to do it this way?’

“I’m constantly learning,” he added.

Moed will be a senior at Oceana in the fall, and he said his plans — other than continuing to work on the garden, which recently acquired 10 chickens — include applying to colleges. He recently visited U.C. Merced, which he was pleased to learn has the highest possible rating for sustainable architecture.

He’ll save some of the Diller Teen award money for college, and plans to donate the remainder to the school garden, as well as to Pie Ranch for helping to inspire his activism in the first place.

To date, the Helen Diller Family Foundation has granted more than $200 million to charitable projects that support education, the arts, medial research and leadership training for teens. Ferrick and Moed will be honored alongside this year’s other Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award winners at a celebratory luncheon in San Francisco on Aug. 29.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.