A crowd of 650 gathered at the Coca-Cola Roxy at The Battery Aug. 28 to salute the important work of JELF, the Jewish Educational Loan Fund.
The event was titled “Stepping It Up” and featured accomplished producer, screenwriter and novelist Jeffrey Stepakoff, executive director of the Georgia Film Academy. With a 30-plus year career in the entertainment industry, Stepakoff has written and produced television series such as Emmy Award-winning “The Wonder Years” as well as breakout hit “Dawson’s Creek.”
Event chairs were Jordan Arogeti, Joanne Birnbrey and Nancy Galanti. The evening’s honorary chairs were long-time supporters and JELF activists Eydie and Steve Koonin, Miriam and Marvin Botnick, and Marianne and Stephen Garber.
JELF Board President Stan Lowenstein spoke passionately about the current trend of college debt, citing a New York Times article saying that 94 percent of college students borrow for their undergraduate education. “With more than $6.1 million of loans servicing nearly 1,000 students, JELF is continuing to lend more each year. We are still incredibly proud of our 99 percent student repayment rate…” which he called “true, working tzedakah.” Lowenstein also announced that JELF’s board approved the lending of $1.2 million in 2019, and explained that JELF loans cover a “variety of expenses like books and supplies and room/board.”
The 2019 JELF impact video showcased a Russian émigré couple, both of whom were JELF loan recipients who have taken impressive career paths. It also featured a single mother with three daughters from Atlanta, all of whom currently have JELF loans, as well as a young musician who spent seven years working in the Atlanta Jewish community before using JELF loans to become a rabbi. As he put it, “It will be a rite of passage to pay off my JELF loan. This truly is a ‘hand up,’ not a ‘hand out.’”
Having known Stepakoff since childhood, theatrical whiz Mira Hirsch made his formal introduction to the audience. Mira has also been involved with JELF “as long as she can remember.” Her father Paul Hirsch served as past president of JELF from 1993 to 1995. She said Stepakoff was “a nice Jewish kid who grew up in BBYO and Camp Barney Medintz, … and was recently selected by the Atlanta Business Chronicle as one of Atlanta’s ‘Most Admired CEOs for 2019’ based on job placement numbers, nurturing talent, and the new overall billion-dollar film industry for Georgia.”
Stepakoff took the stage and immediately filled the large space with his personality and stage presence. He spoke about starting the Georgia Film Academy in August 2015 “with nothing but a green folder, … no faculty, no model, nothing.” Now he states, “in 2018 alone, more than 455 feature productions in Georgia generated $9.5 billion for the Georgia economy. Georgia is number one in the world in major film production. We put 92,000 Georgians to work and helped create 300 businesses. That is a point of pride without parallel.” Indeed, why he used the term “unprecedented!”
Additionally, 5,000 people have taken courses created in Georgia and Georgia has become the “gold standard” for training, jobs and sustainability. He went on to explain that for $750 tuition per class, a graduate could land an $80,000 per year job. A new announcement was the one-year master of fine arts program at the University of Georgia in Athens, followed by a one-year residency at Pinewood Studios. Stepakoff concluded, “We want to keep our talent in-state. We can go toe-to-toe with the entire industry, from L.A. to Bollywood!”
JELF CEO Jenna Shulman wrapped up the night, thanking Stepakoff for his role and tying it all back to their shared value of higher education. “As I reflect on how JELF has grown over the past five years, I am so proud to be a part of a 150-plus year cycle of giving.”