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Motivated by her heritage, student impacts lives

You’d think that Noa Michaeli, a junior, is studying political science so she could one day become a community leader, promoting positive change in society and affecting lives on a personal level.

But she achieved all that before she even started college.

Michaeli was a freshman in high school when she noticed something missing in her community.

After seeking a Jewish foundation in her life outside of her family, she realized the popular Jewish youth group, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, did not have a chapter in her city, Coral Springs. With little guidance and support, she started her own chapter.

“It was really hard at first, trying to get people involved in something that didn’t exist,” said Michaeli. “There was no groundwork or framework or anything like that.”

Despite the lack of structure, Michaeli began holding meetings with friends to delegate responsibilities for the would-be group. Soon after, the group got an adviser and Michaeli became president. Within the first year, the number of participants tripled.

Today, Coral Springs has two BBYO chapters that are among the largest in the country.

BBYO chapter members who have heard stories about Michaeli call to ask her for direction and advice, she said. One member has even nicknamed her “the Godfather.”

“It’s really cool to see that my influence doesn’t stop,” Michaeli said.Michaeli was five years old when her family moved to Florida from Israel. Although she was living in American society, her heritage stayed strong within her.

“Because I have this strong Jewish background, it makes me want to make the Jewish community around me so much stronger,” she said. “That’s why I’ve taken such an active role.”Her influence did not stop in Coral Springs. In her sophomore year at USF, Michaeli became president and a member of the board of directors for Hillel, USF’s Jewish student center. The organization acts as a home away from home for Jewish students and has an open-door policy for anyone interested in knowing more about the faith, Michaeli said.

With her new position, Michaeli noticed a lack of student participation in the organization and took action.

“She led from the top down in that when a new student came into Hillel, she would go up to them and introduce herself and encouraged other student leaders to be welcoming as well,” said Nicky Spivak, the executive director of Hillel at USF.

Active Hillel member Jonathan Franks also noticed Michaeli’s impact.

“I’ve definitely noticed that Hillel has grown in the last year and a half,” he said. “She’s very open and welcoming to everybody. I think her willingness and positive attitude is a huge reflection of Hillel.

“She’s a source of light, and her giant smile reflects on everyone else.”Michaeli’s influence led to the start of a variety of student-led programs and volunteer initiatives.

“I try to inspire students to be their own leader, to find it within themselves to find the motivation to do something they want to do,” Michaeli said.

In the summer of 2005, Michaeli was nationally recognized for shifting Hillel from being staff- to student-oriented; she was also recognized for her dedication. She and seven others were chosen out of 350 students across the nation to receive the Philip H. and Susan Rudd Cohen Exemplar of Excellence Award from Hillel. But her pride came not from merely getting recognized and appreciated for a job well done.

“It was more like ‘Wow, I really have an impact on people,'” she said. “It was so overwhelming.”After accepting the award at an international leadership assembly, Michaeli volunteered at Camp Yofi, a weeklong summer camp for children with autism and their families.After two days of training, Michaeli met her “buddy,” 5-year-old Maya, an autistic child who occasionally communicated vaguely in song. Breaking the communication barrier with Maya was emotionally wrenching, Michaeli said, but in the end, she would sing her “happy” songs and scream Michaeli’s name with delight.

“Even though she couldn’t communicate with me verbally, we still had a very spiritual connection that made us very close,” Michaeli said. “We spent a lot of time throwing leaves into the river and watching the stream take the leaves away. It was very peaceful.”

That simple act carried a meaning for Michaeli that was beyond words.

“When do you ever take time out of your day to enjoy the leaves rustling in the trees or small, simple things like birds chirping?” she said. “It really made me cherish and value the simple things in life that you take for granted.”

Because raising a child with autism is so difficult, it had a major impact on the parents at the camp to see the “buddies” successfully communicate and interact with their children, Michaeli said.

“It gave them hope that one day, people will be more open to children with the disease,” she said. “It was incredible. It’s hard to describe exactly what it felt like.”

Although Michaeli’s passion for change stems from her strong sense of faith, she learns from people of all beliefs and backgrounds.

“I’m inspired every day by people,” she said. “Every day when you meet somebody new, they have their own experience and their own story to tell, and if you just listen, there are so many things you can learn from other people. I really do think that people have it in themselves to do great things, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Joe Schmoe or Rudy Guliani.

Michaeli has juggling community service and school down to a science. In 2004, she interned for both U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla., and the attorney general of Florida, Charlie Crist, and received USF credit for both.

She is now the vice president of Hillel and a USF ambassador.

“Having an effect on people is not impossible,” she said. “You can do it whether it’s a community service project, or reaching out to someone in the grocery store, or actually taking an active role in the community somehow whether it’s like a political figure or just doing something small for your school.

“If you want to make things different then get up and be the change,” she said. “Make it better.”