Ever since Atlanta Jewish Foundation (AJF) lay leader Michelle Simon was a little girl, tzedakah was an integral way of life. It’s simply how she was raised by her parents, the late George and Eva Stern, both of whom immigrated to the United States from Europe during World War II, and taught their children to devote no less than 10% of their allowance toward philanthropy.
“No matter how much we had, we always gave tzedakah,” she said. “That was just never a question; we were raised that way. That it’s always better to give than to receive.”
This credo of giving came sharply into focus after Michelle’s second child, Kyle, was born with a disability. Early on, she noticed that he was developing differently from his brother, who was only a year older. As a baby, Kyle rolled over later. He sat up later. Each phase took more time.
Galvanized to find support for her son, Michelle began combing the city for resources. What she couldn’t have foreseen then was the two decades-long fight on his behalf, and on behalf of children like Kyle, that this would set in motion.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘We think we drive, but we are driven.’ When you’re on one road and then find yourself on another one, you have to go for it. When you can’t go the other way anymore, you’ve got to keep moving forward, just in another direction.”
Leveraging what resources they could, Michelle and her husband, Gary, hired a shadow for Kyle at school. They got him into speech therapy and occupational therapy (OT). But even with this added help, Michelle quickly realized that the need for more resources greatly outweighed the availability.
“I always believed that he should be in an inclusive environment,” she said. But this goal was neither simple nor easy in a landscape where the tenets of accessibility and awareness were nowhere near as prevalent as today.
Diving headlong into the energized parent advocacy community sprouting up across Atlanta, Michelle found herself spearheading grassroots efforts in education, fundraising, mobilization, and trainings around inclusion, and giving toward causes that directly pertained to the Jewish disabilities community.
Along the way, Federation and AJF have provided a meaningful philanthropic gateway for Michelle and her family.
“Having a Donor Advised Fund (DAF) at the Foundation has served so many useful purposes for us,” she said. “The added tax benefits have made it easier to increase our giving levels over the years so that we can make a bigger impact in the disabilities community and our Jewish community.”
Following in her parents’ footsteps as a dedicated steward of the community, Simon has, over the almost two decades since her Atlanta homecoming, assumed numerous leadership roles, donating time and energy to the community, in addition to funds through her DAF.
Michelle serves on the AJF and Federation Boards, on the Leadership Council for the Birthright Israel Foundation, as Vice Chair of Membership Outreach for the Auxiliary of the William Breman Jewish Home, and as Chair of Education and Engagement for Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s Women’s Philanthropy. She’s also actively involved with the Jewish Abilities Alliance, among other endeavors, having been with them from the start.
“I tell anyone who will listen that everyone is different, and we should embrace our differences and accept each other — we all have much to learn from one another and life would be boring if everyone was alike,” she said.
As a native in this city so often framed as a hub for transplants, Michelle has been able to watch Jewish Atlanta morph in myriad ways.
“I feel like there’s more awareness and understanding about people being Jewish, and everyone being different,” she said. That appreciation and recognition of each other’s differences is something she hopes will continue to expand for the disability community as well, throughout Georgia and nationwide.
As Kyle, now 22, navigates young adulthood, Michelle’s commitment to her advocacy work and philanthropy remains as resolute as ever.
“Every day Kyle tries to figure out who he is,” she said. “There are no concrete answers. Things are more fluid. I used to be such a planner, but with him, I just live day-to-day, knowing that Kyle’s unique insight, unwavering compassion and glorious outlook will lead him down the path to a meaningful and productive life – exactly what we hope for all of our children.”