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Dafna Michaelson

According to the old saying, charity begins at home–but for Dafna Michaelson ’95S, it took going on the road to find out where charity and community service truly begin.

In the spring of 2008, Michaelson had an idea. The daily news was filled with reports of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, people losing their homes, mass layoffs, crises at home and abroad, and a contentious presidential election that threatened to create an unbridgeable political gulf between voters. In the midst of all this, Michaelson wondered how people were keeping the fabric of their local community from being torn asunder.

”I can tell you from experience that what I found is an America that it is full of beautiful people from every background and economic level you can imagine.”

Her thought was sparked by a casual conversation with her fiancé while shopping. ”We were in the grocery store and he suggested we buy a lottery ticket because the jackpot was up to some $400 million,” she recounted. ”He asked me what I would do if we won the lottery. I thought about it and said that I’d like to meet with every state governor and ask them how they engage their citizens in solving community problems.”

They didn’t win the lottery, but Michaelson decided to find out for herself what everyday citizens were doing to solve the problems facing their communities. She left her job, cashed in her 401(k) and set out on a trip across all 50 states in 52 weeks to interview local community leaders about the work that they were doing, all documented on her Web site, 50in52journey.com

In her travels, Michaelson discovered that no matter how difficult the problems facing communities and the country as a whole, there are people rising up to meet those challenges. The people she met were as diverse as America itself–everyone from a software engineer and amateur musician in San Francisco, who organized volunteers and donations to create a music program for a local grade school, to a woman in Cleveland who is seeking to transform the health care system with a grassroots effort.

Michaelson’s ties to community service run deep. Based in Denver, she served as director of volunteer services and patient information for Denver Health and Hospitals Authority where she increased volunteer participation by 44 percent. She also became deeply involved in the Downtown Denver Partnership Leadership program, the Leadership Denver initiative with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, and served as president of the local chapter of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her work at Hadassah won her the organization’s Judith Epstein Memorial Award, which is given annually to the young leader whose community project promotes Hadassah in a positive and meaningful way.

”Positive and meaningful” are apt words for Michaelson, who said that her vision and enthusiasm for helping others is shared by many people across the country.

”I had a hypothesis that the people across the United States are really good – that we are relying on the media to be our mirror of who we are as a people and the media is disproportionately showing what is bad about our society instead of what is good,” she said. ”I believed I could show what is wonderful about each of our communities. I can tell you from experience that what I found is an America that is full of beautiful people from every background and economic level you can imagine.”

Michaelson credits her undergraduate experience at Stern as influencing her commitment to community service. ”I learned the most from my extracurricular involvement at Stern,” she said. ”That was only possible because of the critical thinking skills I learned in each of my varied courses. The extracurricular activities really brought home to me the Jewish values of Al Shlosha Devarim HaOlam Omed [Upon three things the world stands, on the Torah, on the work of man, on acts of righteousness].

She is particularly grateful for the guidance she continues to receive from Zelda Braun, associate dean of students at Stern. ”One of the very first people I spoke to about this journey was Zelda,” Michaelson said. ”To this day I consider her wisdom and concern for me as ‘one of her students’ to be a very special gift in my life. I could not have gotten through Stern without her support and I would not have started this life’s journey without sharing my excitement with her.”

Having the network of Stern alumnae to support her also proved vital to completing the 50 in 52 Journey. ”One of the best parts of this Journey was spending Shabbat with my college peers and reminiscing about our antics while in college. I met their beautiful children and saw how my friends’ lives have taken such beautiful paths,” she said. ”I value my Stern relationships.”

Her travels across the country may be complete, but Michaelson’s personal journey has only just begun. She’s in the midst of launching the Journey Institute, which will draw on the lessons that Michaelson learned throughout her travels to offer aspiring community leaders assistance in creating business plans, developing a marketing strategy and launching fundraisers. She was also included as one of 33 thought leaders in the recent e-book 33voices. In her travels, Michaelson said she has come to appreciate more than ever that life is about the journey, not the destination.

”I learned through my experience at Stern and in a home filled with strong Jewish values that it was not enough to only study the Torah and call myself a Jew. It is not enough to only go to work every day and call myself a contributing member of society. It is not enough to only do acts of kindness and call myself a good person. All three must be in place, at all times, to be fulfilling my obligation on this earth.”

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