THE AMAZING STORY OF AN UPPER WEST SIDE HERO AND THE LOCAL GIRL WHO WON $1,800 WRITING ABOUT HER

Earlier this month, Arianna Samet, a 13-year-old girl from the Upper West Side, won first place in the Kaplun Foundation’s annual writing contest, and was awarded $1,800. Samet, a seventh-grader at the Manhattan Day School, wrote an essay for the contest about her former next door neighbor on the Upper West Side. The essay topic was “Who is Your Hero?” Arianna’s piece won first prize, beating out more than 300 entries from all over the world.

Jodi Samuels, the subject of Arianna’s essay, is an immigrant from South Africa who has become a kind of one-woman welcoming committee for Jewish immigrants throughout the world. She has had thousands of new New Yorkers over to her home for Sabbath dinner — literally, dozens of strangers at a time, packed into a normal-size New York apartment — and has been a leader in helping immigrants acclimate.More than 60 people who met at parties she organized have since gotten married, said Arianna’s mother Anne Samet. Her newest mission is helping children with special needs get a Jewish education.

Please read Arianna’s essay below, reprinted with the permission of Kaplun Foundation president Aaron Seligson and Arianna. The full question was: “Who is your hero, Jewish or non-Jewish, living or dead, and what did he or she do that exemplifies a core Jewish value that is meaningful to you.”

By Arianna Samet

Jodi Samuels is my hero. Jodi is the mother of three young children and sets a great example for them all. She is a warm person, whose home is always open; even to strangers. This is someone, who was given a challenge in her life, but has chosen to embrace it rather than just deal with it. But, it doesn’t stop there. She continues to spread awareness and has provided opportunities for those with similar circumstances at first throughout her community, but now, throughout the world.

Jodi exemplifies Hachnasat Orchim by welcoming others into her home. She and her husband Gavin, moved to New York City in the year 2000. They both grew up in South Africa and came to New York after having spent a few years in Australia. They only knew a few people when they arrived and felt that there must be many other “Internationals” in New York, who like them, were lonely in a new country and were looking for a sense of community.

She co-founded JICNY (Jewish International Connection New York), to meet the needs of international Jews in New York City. Beginning with one Shabbat meal in her home, she and her husband Gavin have now hosted over ten-thousand guests from other countries for both Shabbat and holiday meals. The organization caters to Internationals in New York City hoping to give them a home away from home with opportunities such as Torah classes and classes on how to find your future spouse. Since its establishment, JICNY has led to countless relationships and at least sixty marriages! Jodi’s door is truly open to all. If someone needs a place to stay, Jodi will make room for them whether for one night or for months at a time!

Any Jew who has lived in New York City from another part of the world has been touched by Jodi and the JICNY. In fact, this past summer my mother and I were in a restaurant in Paris. The waiter asked where we were from and we were surprised to find out that he had lived in New York for a couple of year’s right across the street from our apartment. We were not surprised however, to find out that he knew Jodi. When we asked him about her, his face lit up. He said that he had eaten in her home a few times and that he had attended a number of the JICNY programs. While he didn’t think that Jodi would remember him, he would always remember her with appreciation for the community that she helped him to have while away from home.

A couple of years ago, Jodi gave birth to her third child. A beautiful little girl, Caily was born with Down’s syndrome. Many, if not most parents, would look at the birth of a special needs child as some sort of punishment. Not Jodi and her husband. Rather than saying, “Why me,” they said, “Of course us!” Their feeling was that who else should G-d choose other than ones who open their home to all and strive to make a difference for all. From the moment that she heard the diagnosis, Jodi has been hard at work making sure to give her precious Caily every opportunity that her other children have. She has also worked tirelessly to make sure that all Jewish children with Down’s have opportunities.

Jodi is not only opening her home to people and working on JICNY, she is also spearheading an effort to make sure that all children with Down’s who are high functioning, have the ability to be mainstreamed at a Jewish Day School.

Jodi was nominated as a National Jewish Community Hero and was a finalist. She sleeps only three hours each night; not because she is not tired but rather, because there is work to be done, work to change the lives of others, work to change the world for the better!
Jodi takes the core Jewish values of Hachnasat Orchim (having an open house to guests) and helping those in need to a new level. While she is only in her mid thirties, Jodi has done more good than hundreds could do in a lifetime. Jodi Samuels is amazing and she is my hero!

Photos courtesy of Anne Samet.

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