Tova Ricardo smiling
2015 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Tova Ricardo has won multiple scholarships from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Scholarships ease burden for college-bound ‘amazing young women’ from the Bay

Adina Epstein was describing a project she’s doing in her first year at University of Michigan with all the fervor of a true engineer.

“Right now I’m working on a team analyzing data from rocket test launches,” she said cheerfully.

Epstein is one of the recipients of this year’s college scholarships administered by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. The Santa Rosa-raised freshman is using the financial help she received to pursue a career in aerospace — hence the rockets.

“I was trying to tell my mom and she was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ ” she said.

Eleven scholarships ranging from $500 to $10,000 are funded annually by Bay Area foundations and managed through the Federation. Program manager Jenny Cohen said every year there seems to be a sort of theme that arises organically, and this year it was “amazing young women.”

“They will one day become role models for younger girls,” Cohen said.

Tova Ricardo is already an inspiration. Oakland’s poet laureate in 2015 and a young woman of color, she grew up in an interfaith household and says being Jewish is integral to who she is — even if she wasn’t always sure how she’d be seen in Jewish spaces.

”It was always a way I connected to something bigger than myself, spiritually,” she said.

She’s passionate about education and using poetry as a means of healing and connection, and plans to use her time at Columbia University to prepare herself for a life of helping others find a voice. “I have to use this privilege that I’ve been given to help other people,” said Ricardo, who was the recipient of four scholarships.

Pomona College freshman Lucianna Onderwyzer Gold also feels deeply about helping others, and credits her Judaism for that passion. “The Jewish community was a huge impact in getting involved in social justice,” said the Berkeley High School graduate.

Gold, who won the Shirley and Robert Raymer Scholarship, chose to attend Pomona in Southern California for its culture of activism and is considering studying politics. Like Ricardo and Epstein, Gold participated in the Federation’s Jewish Teen Foundations, where young people raise philanthropic funds for organizations that address social problems.

As many as 68 scholarships are awarded each year. They have a common application, and Cohen calls the Federation a “conduit” for the applicants. Qualifications typically including financial need, academic merit and leadership potential. But each scholarship is distinct in its requirements, as decided by the individual funders. “They are the ones who make it happen,” Cohen said.

Karyn Orgell Wynne chooses the recipient each year for the Orgell scholarship, which was set up in honor of her mother, Gail Karp Orgell, and is for young women who “show evidence of practicing tzedakah and tikkun olam,” among other qualities. Wynne looks for a candidate she thinks her mother would appreciate — someone who believes in paying it forward.

“Every year I can find one where I’m like, yeah, I like this girl,” she said.

Though each scholarship has a different profile, the 11 named funds and one anonymous fund look at the pool of applicants together. The Ronald P. Wilmot Scholarship Fund, for example, is for children of gay and lesbian parents, while the Stephanie G. Hoffman Scholarship Fund is for students who plan to major in library science or English with the intention of working with underserved children.

But there are some things in common. Most serve Jewish students from the Federation’s service areas. The scholarships aren’t meant to be “first-resort funding,” Cohen said, but rather are intended to help close the gap between what a university offers and what a family can afford. “The important number is what’s left over.”

Susan Mall represents the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation Scholarship Fund and has been looking at scholarship applicants for several years.

The Maisin scholarship is for Jewish high school seniors who are strong students and leaders and show financial need. Mall said it’s a long process, sifting through the applications and looking for the ones that stand out.

“It’s not a perfect science,” she said. “If someone has a sense of humor, sometimes that comes through and we like that.”

Some applicants are so stellar that they end up with more than one scholarship, like Ricardo. Epstein won three scholarships, including from the Maisin Foundation and the Gail Karp Orgell Fund.

With college application season ramping up, Cohen and Mall said they want to make sure people know about the scholarships and encourage young people to apply. Applications for the 2018-2019 academic year become available on Jan. 1, 2018.

Each year the scholarships allow another group of young college-bound Jews like Epstein, Ricardo and Gold — “just three of many,” Cohen said — to go out in the world with an essential bit of extra support.

“Education is one of our values,” Mall said, “so we want to help as many kids as we can get a higher education.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.