Susy Schwartz was an upbeat woman whose love of music, passion for Israel, and willingness to serve in any capacity in which she was needed endeared her to fellow members at Congregation Neve Shalom.
When she died after a battle with cancer in 1990, in her early 40s, the Metuchen synagogue wanted to honor her life and the values she stood for.
It established the Susy Schwartz Memorial Scholarship Fund Benefit Concert, proceeds from which underwrite educational trips to Israel for teens.
On Sunday, April 26, the 25th annual concert will be held at the synagogue. It will feature Jewish musicians Josh Nelson and Neshama Carlebach (see sidebar).
The scholarship fund provides young people with a “Passport to Israel” voucher at their bar or bat mitzva, which they can cash in between ninth grade and college graduation to fund an educational trip to Israel.
“Susy was a very vivacious and dedicated person who served as our vice president,” said Passport chair Eliot Spack. “She had a special love for Israel and would visit there often.”
Over the years the benefit concert has brought in a long roster of well-known Jewish entertainers, including Debbie Friedman (the only one to appear twice), Craig Taubman, Doug Cotler, Sam Glaser, Six13, David Broza, and Kol B’Seder.
Rena Kallman, who has chaired the concert since its inception, said Schwartz was a “one-woman machine” especially when it came to youth and education.
“I was on the membership committee with her, and she just had the best ideas,” said Kallman. “The concerts have really brought together everything Susy stood for: Judaism, youth, Israel, education, and music.”
Born Susanna Rodriques in Cuba, Schwartz was Sephardi. Her survivors include her husband, Willy, a Cuban-born Ashkenazi Jew, and three young children.
Since the Passport program began, Spack said, 124 young people have turned in their vouchers to go on an approved trip, mostly on summer programs, although some college students have used it while spending a year studying in Israel.
“We do not mandate what program they go on, but it is subject to review and approval,” he explained.
At the onset, each student was given $500, but over the years as costs have escalated it was increased to $1,000, and hiked again to $2,000. Some have also combined that with a $1,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County — now the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
After their trips, the young people are each asked to write an article for the synagogue bulletin and urged to speak to Hebrew school students about their experiences.
Spack said other synagogues across the country have contacted Neve Shalom to replicate the program.
Amanda Pogany was one of the first to redeem her passport in 1994. She said the congregation had already given her a strong foundation, but her participation in the Nesiya Institute travel program for teens influenced her life’s journey. Today she is head of school at Luria Academy, a Jewish day school in Brooklyn.
The trip, she said, “deepened my love of Israel and helped me develop a connection to Jewish life. It influenced me to want to work with other kids to help them also develop that love of Israel and connection to Jewish life.”
Josh Ull, 21, of Edison used his passport in 2011 to go on the Nativ program before his senior year of high school. “I had never been to Israel before and it sparked a huge interest in me, so much so I ended up taking a gap year in Israel,” said the Jewish studies major, now a junior at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. He spent half that year at Hebrew University, the other half volunteering at an agricultural youth village.
Ull, a former international president of United Synagogue Youth, said the trip also inspired him to stay connected to Jewish youth, as an adviser to USY on Wheels trips across the United States and as Lehigh Valley USY chapter adviser.
Scott Boxer, 18, went last year on a USY pilgrimage to Eastern Europe that culminated in a month in Israel. Initially considering a career in theatrical technical deign, the Edison High School senior said the trip inspired a change in plans.
“Now I would like to go into international relations with a focus on the Middle East, do a gap year in Israel with USY, and then get my degree at American University,” said Boxer.