2017-07-05 / Voice at the Shore

Four accomplished teens receive generous support from Avoda


The four accomplished students who received Avoda awards are (from left), Larry Strenger, Sydnee VanDyke, Benjamin Caplan, and Jacob Lilienfeld. The four accomplished students who received Avoda awards are (from left), Larry Strenger, Sydnee VanDyke, Benjamin Caplan, and Jacob Lilienfeld. As a Jewish kid growing up at the Jersey shore, Sydnee VanDyke often felt like an outsider until she found acceptance, good friends and leadership opportunities through USY, the youth movement of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ).

For Larry Strenger, his Judaism and the tight-knit community surrounding him provided a solid foundation that helped him take on challenges in academics and other aspects of life.

The two newly minted graduates of Mainland Regional High School were toasted as this year’s major award winners at the 90th Annual Avoda Awards Presentation Dinner held on June 7 at the Mays Landing Country Club. Shy Kramer, an Avoda member, was the master of ceremonies.

VanDyke, who intends to study psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson College this fall, and Strenger, bound for Indiana to pursue engineering at Purdue University, both will receive $30,000 over the course of their undergraduate years as well as guidance from the Avoda Club, a service organization that has helped promising Jewish students pursue education and achieve their dreams since 1928.

“You are now a member of the Avoda family,” said Jack Dubis, an Avoda member who will be Strenger’s proctor. “As such, we are interested in what you do and how you accomplish things as much as your family is.”

Started when both the Great Depression and quotas on Jews at many prestigious colleges were impediments preventing promising students from pursuing higher education, the club has awarded more than $2 million to some 150 college-bound students over the years. Past awardees are leading scientists, attorneys, and physicians and in practically every discipline including philanthropy.

In addition to VanDyke and Strenger, the club gave out awards of $20,000 each to two other accomplished teens – Benjamin Caplan, a graduate of Egg Harbor Township School and member of Beth Israel Synagogue, and Jacob Lilienfeld, a graduate of Atlantic City High School and a Shirat Hayam (and formerly Beth Judah) congregant.

According to Avoda selection committee Chairman Charles Berg, the group had planned to choose two or three winners, but could only narrow it down to four of the nine applicants.

“We read and reread the applications,” said Berg. “As always, we were astounded by the overall quality of the applicants.”

VanDyke, the daughter of Jennifer and Robert VanDyke, said her decision to pursue psychology and social work was greatly influenced by her difficulty fitting in as a child. In truth, the Beth Israel congregant said she had trouble connecting to her Judaism before a friend introduced her to USY, where she has thrived in local and regional leadership roles.

“I went from being an outcast in one society to a prominent member of another,” said VanDyke, who at Mainland participated in the Future Ambassadors, the school Color Guard and the student-organized Book Club. “I want to help other people learn to love themselves, quirks and all, just as USY helped me to embrace who I am.”

Strenger, the son of Ellen and Keith Strenger, was a member of National Honor Society, Science League and Math Club, as well as captain of the Mainland Academic Team, president of the computer club and a lacrosse and football player. In the Jewish world, he is a graduate of the Kulanu High School of Jewish Studies and a congregant of Beth Israel, where he worked as a teacher’s assistant.

Admittedly, said Strenger, his first thought upon learning about Avoda was “free money.” But he said the more he learned of the service organization, the more he realized that the award was much more valuable and meaningful.

“You guys have been doing this for 90 years — just helping kids like me who need help — and that’s pretty great,” he said. “I’m really happy, not just about the money, but about keeping up correspondence and really being part of the community. I think it’s really great that I can keep the Jewish community I’ve lived in since I was five with me even as I’m going all the way to Indiana to study engineering.” 

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