Julian Berkowitz-Sklar
Julian Berkowitz-Sklar

3 Bay Area Jewish teens win $36,000 Diller Teen awards for social justice projects

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Three Bay Area teenagers have won a 2023 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, a program that recognizes 15 Jewish teen leaders across the United States each year for their commitment to social justice work.

Julian Berkowitz-Sklar, 18, of Saratoga, Jake Hammerman, 17, of Lafayette, and Henry Lien, 17, of Mill Valley, will each receive $36,000 in recognition of service projects they created that “exemplify the spirit of tikkun olam, a Jewish value meaning ‘to repair the world,’” the award program said Wednesday in press release.

Berkowitz-Sklar, who grew up in Costa Rica and California, where he attended Saratoga High School, noticed a lack of education and resources to connect youth to nature. Inspired by his passion for environmental justice, he co-founded Nature Now International, a grassroots group that runs nature-based educational trips in Costa Rica and Northern California. Through his project, Berkowitz-Sklar, who plans to attend Yale in fall 2024 after a gap year, has worked with civil and private groups and government agencies to coordinate hands-on projects in vulnerable ecosystems for more than 300 young people. Projects have included planting trees, protecting sea turtle hatchlings and collecting scientific data.

Jake Hammerman (left)
Jake Hammerman (left)

Hammerman, after witnessing difficulties that elderly members of his family faced, had sought out local volunteer opportunities to help seniors facing elder abuse, housing issues or depression. Because of his young age, he was always turned away. So Hammerman, an incoming freshman at Yale, began his project — Impactful Tennis — that combines his passion for tennis and his concern for seniors. The project sells tennis lessons to raise funds for Meals on Wheels, which addresses hunger and isolation among seniors. Since 2020, Impactful Tennis has registered nearly 400 students for tennis lessons and donated about $35,000 to Meals on Wheels.

Lien, who attends the Branson School in Ross, created ChessPals to teach people about a game he’s played since he was 6. Since its founding in 2018, his project has provided free chess lessons to over 800 children in eight elementary schools and three city-run camps across three school districts in Marin County. Most of the children that Lien’s program teaches are Latino students from immigrant families. This group is largely underrepresented among young chess players. Lien has also expanded his program and added five chapters in California, Texas, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Henry Lien
Henry Lien

The awards are a program of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. According to its website, the San Francisco-based foundation was established 25 years ago to “support science, education, and cultural arts, with a focus on the Bay Area and global Jewish needs.”

“Young people are striving to solve critical challenges in their communities with creativity, hard work, resourcefulness, and a commitment to tikkun olam,” Phyllis Cook, philanthropic consultant for the foundation, said in the press release. “We are inspired by their leadership and committed to recognizing them as role models for other teens by celebrating how young people can make an impact in communities across the country.”

Other award recipients’ projects focused on issues such as antisemitism and food insecurity.

Teens can use the award money for philanthropic projects or toward their education.

Applications and nominations for 2024 will open in August, following a private awards ceremony on Aug. 7 in San Francisco.

Jordan Greene

Jordan Greene is a freelance reporter.