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Learning to Save the World -- Winter Park/Maitland Jewish Observer

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As Laurel Cohen talks about her passions — rapidly, vigorously expressing her stances about human rights, fighting against genocide and simply discussing the world around her — you get the sense that if she alone could save the world, she would.

Though she said she wholly believes in “the power of one,” she knows that even with all the enthusiasm and compassion in the world, she can’t. So the Winter Park High School senior takes every opportunity she can to lead others to care about anything.

“You have to have someone to care about every thing,” Laurel said.

The most recent way she’s decided to help others share her compassion for the world was as a teen coordinator for this year’s PANIM Institute of BBYO’s Human Rights and Genocide Summit. For three days, Laurel was one of two leaders in the program, which brought together Jewish teens in Washington, D.C., to learn about genocide and how to speak out against it so they can make a difference. They listened to lectures from activists, met with members of Congress and learned how to use the knowledge they gained there to make an impact in their own communities.

Natural leader

Near Auschwitz, Poland during the March of the Living.

The role of teen coordinator was created this year, and Laurel immediately came to the directors’ mind because of her impact at last year’s Summit. Her passion and empathy for human rights and engaging others made her the clear choice, they said.

“I think it’s an innate thing that happened,” said Mikah Goldman, program associate. “She has this internal drive that’s just amazing, and she really inspires other people.”

“She’s a natural leader,” Luci Cohen, Laurel’s mom, said.

Laurel’s idea of leadership and her passion for communication fit in well at the program. Her definition of a leader isn’t conventional. She wasn’t telling people what to do or think, but rather helping the other teens express themselves, engaging their ideas with her own questions and fostering conversation. She said she loved that she felt she could see her friends absorbing the information and changing.

“You can make teens care about people on the other side of the world,” she said.

Laurel also used her skills as a leader at March of the Living, a two-week trip to Poland and Israel and educational program to teach Jewish teens about the Holocaust. There, she led in a very similar way as the Summit, just by “cultivating conversation” and pushing people to express themselves in difficult situations.

“Laurel has an incredible sense of empathy to feel others’ joy and sorrow, taking to heart what she needs to offer support,” said her rabbi, Rick Sherwin.

Family values

Laurel Cohen poses with friends with whom she cleared, righted, and cleaned graves in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery.

Laurel has always been a handful — full of conviction, determination and ideals, her mom said. When she was 3, Luci Cohen found her daughter scolding a fellow preschooler for making another cry. She needed no push to take leadership roles in her community and school, and her dad, Jeffrey Cohen, joked that they’ve always just stayed out of her way.

But they have to take some credit, Laurel said. Both her parents are doctors, and at family dinner, their days were a topic of discussion. They told stories about the hardships of their patients, and Laurel said she gained a perspective on life she is grateful for now.

“I was always reminded that it was never a choice to ignore the needs of others less fortunate … it was not a rational option,” she said.

In the future, Laurel wants to blend an education in medicine with work in public health care policy. She hopes her power of one can make others’ lives better.

“Your job in the world is not to serve just you,” she said.

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