Leah Schechter is living an adage. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
The New Canaan native expresses the sentiment a little differently: “You can only give out so many sandwiches before you have to wonder why there is a hungry person who keeps coming back,” she says. “I want to solve hunger.”
After several years of providing such direct service, Schechter, 28, wants to get at the root of the problems she’s worked to alleviate. She is taking two paths to achieve her goal.
Most recently, Schechter was a group leader for American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Volunteer Summer, the kick-off to a 10-month-long program that offers service opportunities for high-school and college students in the U.S. and abroad.
Now she is pursuing a master’s degree in non-profit management at the New School for Public Engagement Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. A full-time student living in New York, she is also working part-time as the singles outreach coordinator for Jewish Family Service in Stamford, and teaching teens one day a week at Temple Israel in Westport, where she was youth director and assistant director of education before returning to school.
Schechter’s AJWS group of 17 high-school students from around the U.S. worked on a construction project in Ghana with the Institute for Cultural Affairs-Ghana, a local AJWS grant recipient and partner NGO.
The experience is a characteristic pursuit for Schechter, who has led teen groups from Temple Israel in the Midnight Run homeless-relief program and on service-learning projects in Nicaragua and New Orleans.
“I’ve followed AJWS as an organization and through my work at Temple Israel,” she says. “I was looking for other opportunities to travel and combine my dedication to Jewish youth and my teaching experience with my commitment to being a global partner and citizen. This was a perfect opportunity, and not just for my own benefit.”
Here’s where the fish axiom enters, in another guise. “It’s not okay for me to just help; I have to empower others to do the same,” Schechter says. “If I’m not passing on the work and desire to help to the next generation of Jewish youth, the commitment to service ends with me.”
The way to get at the source of a problem like hunger or poverty is through young adults, Schechter says. “I want to pass along that passion and enable direct-service opportunities to young adults to create that next generation of people who work to help others and who can look at underlying policy and structure in ways that allow them to actually solve the problems.”
Schechter returned to formal study in order to gain the managerial and leadership skills to help non-profit humanitarian organizations better fulfill their missions. Before entering the New School program in September, she completed a course in educational leadership at the Leo Baeck Institute in London, part of a certificate program in informal Jewish education.
“There are a lot of non-profits in the Jewish community that lack strong leadership and managerial skills,” she says. “Many have phenomenal missions, but if you don’t have the management to accomplish your mission, what good can you do?”
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