Meet the Jewish Light’s 2017 Unsung Heroes

Videos by Destiny Whitney

Susan Balk, 75, a former journalist, in 2010 founded HateBrakers, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that seeks out people who were targets of bullying or other hate crimes — or in some cases, perpetrators — and then documents and shares their stories at schools and on its website in an effort to stop the cycle of hate. 

She also co-authored a book, “Vienna’s Conscience: Close-ups and Conversations after Hitler,” with her late husband, Richard Winter, who escaped from Austria in 1938 but went back 50 years later to interview and photograph people in the capital about the war and its legacy. 

After the book’s publication in 2007, Balk, a former literary editor at Playboy, started collecting interviews from people like Ronald Simpson-Bey, who had been in the midst of a 50-year sentence for committing assault with intent to murder — a conviction that was later overturned — when his son was shot and killed. Simpson-Bey, a leader of religious organizations inside the prison and a counselor to other inmates, forgave the teen who shot his son.  

After Stan Shanker, 72, heard Rabbi James Bennett deliver a sermon about the plight of Syrian refugees, the Shaare Emeth congregant knew he wanted to get involved in helping them. He eventually contacted the International Institute of St. Louis, where for the past two years he has volunteered as a home visitor, spending an hour or two with refugee families once a week during the first month they arrive in St. Louis. On these visits he checks to make sure the places these families are renting are habitable, but he’s also there to be a friendly face, answering any questions they have and getting them acclimated to their new country. In addition to home visits, Shanker has enlisted more than 60 volunteers at Shaare Emeth to help in this effort as well as help sponsor various events for them, such as potluck lunches, Christmas carnivals and a free day at the Magic House. 

There are volunteers and there are volunteers, and then there is Jerri Livingston, 65. She has served on a wide array of committees at Congregation Shaare Emeth, including its Board of Directors. She has co-chaired the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival as well as events with Nishmah and Hadassah, the latter of which honored her with its national leadership award in 2011.Her most consistent involvement has been with children; she has taught religious school at her temple for nearly a quarter century and still teaches Hebrew school. She also teaches knitting classes at Covenant Place and sometimes leads services there. A 16-year survivor of breast cancer, Livingston works with Susan G. Komen and its Race for the Cure, and has previously been named the organization’s volunteer of the year.

Cindy Wallach, 55, likes celebrating birthdays — so much so that five years ago Wallach launched Birthday Joy, a not-for-profit organization that to date has provided birthday gifts to about 3,000 children. Wallach and about 75 volunteers working with Birthday Joy have given presents to children affiliated with more than a dozen agencies, including Gateway 180, Homeless Reversed, Edgewood Children’s Center, Shriners Hospital for Children, Ronald McDonald House and Lydia’s House. Working through two umbrella agencies that represent the targeted organizations, Wallach gets a list each month with names and ages of children about to celebrate a birthday. Volunteers shop for gifts for about 100 kids each month. In addition to running her marketing firm and Birthday Joy, Wallach also sits on the boards of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Community Center, A World of Difference Institute, Crown Center for Seniors, Central Reform Congregation, the Century Foundation and the Washington University Neighbors Council.

Lois and Dave Zuckerman, 60 and 61 respectively, are the founders of Mentors4College, a volunteer, not-for-profit organization that helps students and their parents settle on and finalize details for a post-secondary education path. That path may be a four-year college, two-year college, a trade or technical school, the military or a course leading to certification in a chosen field.  The couple launched the program in 2011 at Parkway North High School, which all three of their children had attended. Since then, the Zuckermans and about 30 trained volunteer mentors have worked for free with almost 400 students at Parkway North, Parkway Central and Parkway West. Now the program is expanding to the Bayless School District and to a school in Washington, Mo. They are members of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community where, in July, Dave Zuckerman will assume the duties of president.

Jeffrey Cohen, 47, a board member at the Henry & Gladys Crown Center for Senior Living, is the brains behind Circle@Crown, an innovative café-style gathering place that helps connect seniors at the center with others from the surrounding community.

That’s just one example of the sort of work he’s been doing at Crown for more than a decade and a half. He also won Crown’s Leadership Award in 2015 and is now on its Lifetime Council.

But Crown isn’t Cohen’s only passion. He’s also been involved with Camp Sabra, his summer destination as an adolescent. He chaired the capital campaign for the Jewish community camp and was also recently invited to join the J’s board.

Jay Umansky, 63, has helped at least 7,500 seniors via the Gateway Older Adult Legal Services Project (GOALS). Formerly a part of the St. Louis branch of the American Jewish Congress, it now operates under the auspices of the Midwest Jewish Congress (MJC), a new organization unaffiliated with the old AJC. 

Umansky, a debt collections attorney who runs his own West County firm, first became involved in GOALS nearly four decades ago because he saw that simple legal issues can become a significant burden for older residents who may not have the resources or financial ability to obtain proper representation.

Umansky also started working with the American Jewish Congress in the late 1970s but after financial troubles for the national organization led to the end of its local chapter in 2013, Umansky helped found a successor group – the MJC – eventually serving as its first president.

Other organizations that have benefited from his help include the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Student Union, the St. Louis Kollel, AISH HaTorah, AIPAC and the Jewish Light.


Suzanne Epstein-Lang, 40, splits her time between helping families deal with legal, emotional and financial challenges, and volunteering for organizations like National Council of Jewish Women. She helped stage its 2012 fundraiser featuring television personality and St. Louis native Andy Cohen.

And at Central Reform Congregation, where Epstein-Lang belongs, she helped stage a bar mitzvah party for a child whose family did not have the means to pay for a celebration. 

There are other things, too. She used to go door-to-door, rallying support for PROMO, a Missouri organization that advocates for LGBT rights. 

According to friends and colleagues, she puts the same dedicated effort into all of her endeavors — where they are in the courtroom or the classroom, professional or volunteer. 

She is a member of parent-teacher organizations in the Ladue School District and organizes the annual Giving Assembly featuring fourth grade students at Old Bonhomme Elementary School who collect and deliver household items to the nonprofit organizations Trinity Food Pantry, Crisis Nursery and Kids Smart.

Dr. Sharon Dunski Vermont, a 48-year-old pediatrician, was inspired by her own experience with her transgender son to help other families with children who are transitioning. 

After her son came out, Vermont announced that her child was transitioning on Facebook and soon started receiving calls and emails. She is now a board member and medical advisor for the support group TransParent. 

In February, she testified in the Missouri State Senate against a proposed bathroom bill that require transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate. She listed a number of different studies and tried to dispel the ideas that gender dysphoria is a mental illness and that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity puts others at risk.