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Madoff Who?

While many traditional Jewish philanthropic organizations are in disarray as the economy falters and scandal shocks, three young Jewish women are proving that ingenuity and dedication may be more effective than an endowment or an investment portfolio.

At 12, Talia Leman barely squeaks into the category of Jewish women. Leman responded to hurricanes Katrina and Rita by organizing a campaign to trick-or-treat for coins to help victims. That project spurred the creation of RandomKid (randomkid.org), which directs youngsters’ to social justice causes. RandomKid operates as a clearinghouse and provides pre-teens interested in activism with resources like loans, education and project development help. Leman, the C.E.O. (perhaps this country’s youngest), is actively involved with training and motivating her age-mates.

Like Leman, Shlomit Cohen, 21, of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, facilitates her peers’ engagement in the world. Cohen, a senior, is president of the college’s Social Justice Society, which hosts educational events on such topics as agunot, Darfur, human trafficking, conflict diamonds and the emerging new kosher-justice certification Hekhsher Tzedek, along with volunteer projects like weekly food packaging and trips to a community center for homeless people. Cohen plans to be a social worker, specializing in domestic violence in faith-based communities. “We have a responsibility, first of all as human beings, but also very much as Jews,” to do such work.

Sivan Achor-Borowich, the 30-year-old founder of Jewish Heart for Africa (jhasol.org), shares this passion. Borowich — who describes herself emphatically as “not a non-profit person” — happened to be working for the United Nations Development Program in Senegal in early 2008 when she made the connection between much of Africa’s poverty and its lack of electricity.

An Israeli-American familiar with Israel’s pioneering work in solar energy, she realized that one of Africa’s most abundant resources — sunlight — could be the solution. Thanks to her, now in Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania Israeli solar-power technology and equipment produce electricity for schools, medical clinics, water pumps and a synagogue. The impact of this initiative has been tremendous: villages have clean water, clinics can store vaccines that need to be refrigerated and children have more time for school since they do not need to spend their days gathering water and wood. Thousands of Africans’ quality of life has improved, and at the same time the project bolsters Israel’s economy and image. Seventeen projects have been completed in a year, affirming Achor-Borowich’s confidence that “even a small idea can be developed into something meaningful.” Her current involvement seems quite simple to her; it’s motivated, she says, by her understanding that “people are in need, and we have the tools to help them. With very little we can do a lot.”