Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jews of the Week: Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin

Levin and Feinberg

Mike Feinberg (b. 1969) graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991, while Dave Levin (b. 1970) graduated from Yale the following year. The two met in a Houston school where they were both teachers. Despite each having just two years of teaching experience, they started a new education program called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) in 1994. The program was geared towards children living in poverty, and aimed to increase the number of such students that graduate and go on to college. Students would go to school six days a week, with longer days and shorter summer breaks. There was a lot of homework, but also a lot of teamwork; strict discipline, combined with music and travel. The result was spectacular. Impoverished students were succeeding at unprecedented levels, and enjoying it, too. Feinberg and Levin won ‘Teacher of the Year’ awards, then opened two official KIPP schools, one in Houston, and one in the Bronx. By 1999, these were among the best schools in their regions. In 2000, KIPP got a $15 million donation from Don and Doris Fisher (the founders of GAP, and former Jews of the Week), to expand KIPP into a national network. Today, KIPP has 200 schools across America with over 80,000 students. It is the largest and most successful charter school system in the US. About 96% of students are either black or Hispanic, and 87% from struggling households. 90% go on to graduate high school (compared to the national average of 80%, and 69% for black students), and 45% get college degrees (compared to the 9% national average for impoverished students). So many people want to get into KIPP schools that students are selected through a lottery. Feinberg and Levin have won multiple awards and honourary degrees for their work, including the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize, for “Paradigm-Shifting Vision in Education”, and the National Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. Their story is told in the bestselling book Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created America’s Most Promising Schools.

Words of the Week

The Torah commands: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work.” But is it possible for a person to do “all their work” in six days? Rather, [it means to say] rest on Shabbat as if all your work is done.
– Mekhilta

Jew of the Week: Moshe Kai

Moshe Kai Cavalin (b. 1998) was born in Los Angeles, the son of a Taiwanese mother and an Israeli-Brazilian father. He started speaking at 4 months of age, and was reading and doing math by 3. At 6, he was rejected from elementary school because he “knew more than the teacher”, and had to be home-schooled. At 8, he became the youngest person in American history to take college classes. He got his first degree three years later, with a perfect 4.0 GPA. He then enrolled at UCLA – with a full scholarship – and earned a BS in mathematics. Meanwhile, Kai wrote two bestselling books (an inspirational autobiography, and a manual to deal with bullying). For fun, he scuba dives, plays piano, and chess, and avoids video games which, he says, are “not helping humanity in any way.” He is also an avid martial artist – thanks to his father, a former IDF special forces commando – and has won 26 gold medals. Incredibly, Kai got a pilot’s license, too. This led to a phone call from NASA in 2015. NASA needed a pilot who also knew math, physics, and computer programming to develop surveillance and anti-collision technology for drones and airplanes. Kai has been at NASA ever since, working hard to keep the skies safe. He is concurrently doing his Master’s in cybersecurity, and intends to later get a Master’s in business from MIT before opening his own cybersecurity company. Kai describes himself as a religious person and often credits God with giving him the insight to solve problems. One of his professors once said: “I think most people just think he’s a genius, they believe it just comes naturally… He actually worked harder than, I think, any other student I’ve ever had.”

Words of the Week

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Albert Einstein

Kai at age 10 with his menorah; and more recently with his martial arts trophies

Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.