Student helps illuminate lives of thousands in Kenya

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Ben Hirschfeld photo/jta

When Ben Hirschfeld first heard that students in developing African countries lacked electricity and must endure noxious fumes from smoky kerosene lamps while reading and doing their schoolwork, the teenager from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., knew he had to find a way to help.

Over the last four years — with guidance from his neighbor and fellow Woodlands Community Temple member Pam Allyn, who also heads the New York-based literacy organization LitWorld — Hirschfeld has raised enough money to replace the dangerous kerosene lamps with cost-effective and environmentally friendly solar lanterns for more than 11,300 Kenyan students and their families.

Hirschfeld and his team of local teens, along with youth volunteers from across the country, raise money for the solar lanterns at farmers markets, benefit concerts, read-a-thons and elsewhere.

A Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award-winner last summer, Hirschfeld, a sophomore at Columbia University, says he plans to use his $36,000 prize to expand his “Lit! Solar Lantern Project” and provide solar lanterns to more than 15,000 additional students and their families in Kenya as well as Guinea and Nigeria. 

His goal is “trying to be as high impact as possible” with the funds, Hirschfeld says.

Here are his thoughts on the importance of tikkun olam and his future plans.

JTA: Who or what are the biggest influences in your life?

Ben Hirschfeld: I would say my community and my family. From them I’ve learned what to be proud of and what to strive for.

JTA: What have been some of the most meaningful Jewish experiences in your life?

B.H.: I grew up in a very Jewish environment. There was always an emphasis on tikkun olam at my temple and at home. I studied at the Technion [in Israel] and I was part of Hazamir, a Jewish choral group.

JTA: How has your Jewish identity had an impact on your service project?

B.H.: After the first distribution of lanterns, I remember waking up that morning and seeing the feedback and I said to myself, now I really feel like a bar mitzvah. I really connected then to the Jewish value of tikkun olam and feeling like a responsible man.

JTA: If you could have lunch with anyone and tell him or her about your service project, who would it be?

B.H.: Bill Clinton. I’m really interested and inspired by the work of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, specifically their work on HIV and finding market-based solutions to combat the disease.

JTA: What do you think you want to be doing when ”you grow up” or think you’d like to be doing professionally in perhaps five or 10 years?

B.H.: I’d love to be doing something that allows me to still be helping people and making a difference. Whether it’s through a for-profit or a nonprofit or a combination of the two, working in developing economies is an area that is exciting for me to explore and a place where you can make the most difference, especially in health and literacy.

For more information on the solar lantern project, visit www.litworld.org/lit. To learn more about the $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://www.dillerteenawards.org