By Nira Dayanim

Features Editor


For Mitzpeh

Yakir Kanefsky (left) and his father, Yosef Kanefsky, stopped for a selfie during their 50 mile bike ride on July 26, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Yakir Kanefsky)

“For me, Thanksgiving is just like a yearly reminder that if I have something to be thankful for, I should give back,” said Yakir Kanefsky, a sophomore psychology major at this university.

Thanksgiving is Kanefsky’s favorite non-Jewish holiday, he said, though not for the reasons one might expect. It’s not the turkey or family time that draws him in; it’s the meaning of the word.

“First comes the thanks… once you realize how much you have, you realize how much you have to give,” Kanefsky said.

On Oct. 31, after raising around $16,000, Kanefsky concluded a month-long fundraiser for Sharsheret, an organization that provides support to women fighting breast and ovarian cancers.

For the past year and a half, Kanefsky has been taking every opportunity to give back. Since last July, Kanefsky has organized four athletic fundraisers, raising over $22,000 for various non-profit organizations. The fundraiser for Sharsheret was his fourth.

A Modern Orthodox Jew and rabbi’s son, Kanefsky spent a gap year at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem. There, he studied ancient Jewish texts, philosophy and history. But the lesson that impacted him the most was one rabbi’s encouragement to use his passions for a higher purpose.

In an article for The Boiling Point, his high school’s newspaper, Kanefsky spoke about his experience as a rabbi’s son. Kanefsky selected his hobbies, style of dress and music preferences as a rebellion against his father and his community’s expectations.

His rabbi in yeshiva’s teaching helped him realize that his religiosity didn’t have to come at the cost of his self-expression, he said. For Kanefsky, this was a turning point.

A self-described “athletic guy,” Kanefsky feels strongly about maintaining his physical fitness.

“Taking on athletic challenges has always been a big part of my identity,” he said.

Upon returning home to Los Angeles after the pandemic unexpectedly ended his time in yeshiva, Kanefsky’s rabbi’s words pushed him to use that affinity to do something meaningful. Kanefsky thought about how to incorporate fitness and his desire to do good for a while before deciding on an athletic fundraiser. In early June, he started training with his father.

In July 2020, Kanefsky and his father completed a 50 mile bike ride to raise money for Bet Tzedek, an organization that offers free legal counsel to people living in poverty.

Since starting at the University of Maryland last year, Kanefsky has arranged three more athletic fundraisers.

Because of the university’s COVID-19 restrictions, Kanefsky wasn’t able to fly home to Los Angeles last fall semester to be with his family. Alone on Thanksgiving, he ran up 100 flights of stairs, raising over $2,000 for No Kid Hungry, an organization that seeks to end childhood hunger. 

On Jan. 31, 2021, Kanefsky was several days into quarantining in the Leonardtown Community after being exposed to a friend who tested positive for COVID-19. Cooped up with nothing to do, Kanefsky decided to run 10 miles in the dorm room’s common area to raise money for the Free Wheelchair Mission, an organization that provides wheelchairs in developing countries. Kanefsky said that although the experience was scary at first, being stuck inside made him grateful for his legs, so he wanted to use them to help others.

According to Rami Sloan, Kanefsky’s friend from yeshiva and current roommate, Kanefsky’s Jewish values are fundamentally connected to his fundraising.

“As Modern Orthodox Jews, we don’t just have an emphasis on learning Torah; we have an emphasis on actualizing it. I think Yakir is the face of that idea,” Sloan said.

Kanefsky said he felt especially connected to Sharsheret’s cause because his mother fought breast cancer several times before he was born. “Over the years, getting more world experience, more and more I realize how much of a miracle it is that I was able to be born healthy and that my mom is doing amazing now. That gratitude makes me want to give back,” said Kanefsky.

After hearing about how members of his community came together to support his mother during her battle with breast cancer, Kanefsky decided to structure the fundraiser to mirror that sentiment. For this Sharsheret fundraiser, volunteers contributed by running or walking to reach a total of 2,600 miles — the distance between Kanefsky’s home in Los Angeles and College Park, Maryland.

“Ultimately a big part of this fundraiser was to prove to myself and others that when people come together it can make an even bigger impact,” he said in an October interview.

He reached his goal.


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