If you are a fan of the long-running CBS reality show “Survivor,” it is well worth your time to re-watch its third season, “Survivor: Africa,” just to see Ethan Zohn play.
In a game in which players commonly resort to deceit and trickery, and where trust is elusive, Zohn won the 2002 season through decency, selflessness and a sense of fairness that he attributes in large part to his strong Jewish values.
Zohn, now a self-described “passionate” advocate for Israel, will be in Pittsburgh on April 3, speaking at a Jewish National Fund breakfast beginning at 7:30 a.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“I had every intention to go [into “Survivor”] and be a lying, backstabbing person and do everything I could to win this game,” said Zohn, speaking by phone from his home in New Hampshire. “However, once I got there, I realized it wasn’t necessarily the best strategy for me. My wonderful mom had said, ‘Ethan, just come back with your dignity and self-respect. That matters more than whatever happens there.’”
Once immersed in the game, Zohn “realized that using some of the values I learned growing up in the Jewish community worked well with the people that were there. It was more about being selfless in a selfish game, being the teacher, being a member of the community, being a leader who works well with other people. Those are the things I learned growing up within the Jewish people.”
There were several occasions on the show where Zohn’s Jewishness specifically “came into play,” he said. One of those incidents involved his winning a plate of mystery food along with fellow tribemate Tom Buchanan — a goat farmer from Virginia who had never before met a Jew.
“On that mystery plate of food was a big, beautiful breakfast, but half of it was bacon and ham,” recalled Zohn. “And here I am starving, and Tom’s like, ‘He’s a Jew! He’s a Jew! He won’t eat the ham!’ And I’m laughing and he’s laughing.”
Both Buchanan and Zohn were criticized for their reactions, Buchanan for making fun of Zohn, and Zohn for laughing it off, but Zohn used the experience as an opportunity to educate.
“That experience was kind of a bonding moment for us where I had this opportunity,” Zohn explained. “I could have got [upset], I could have voted Tom off. But I thought that would be too easy. So, instead, it was a really great opportunity to tell him, ‘This is what Jews are. These are the foods we eat, these are the holidays we celebrate. And these are the rules of our community and our culture.’”
Prior to playing “Survivor,” Zohn played professional soccer for the Hawaii Tsunami, Cape Cod Crusaders, and Zimbabwe Highlanders F.C. He used his $1 million winnings from “Survivor” to co-found Grassroot Soccer, a nonprofit that uses the power of the game to combat HIV/AIDS and improve the health of adolescents in developing countries.
His inspiration for Grassroot Soccer came during an episode of “Survivor” when he was visiting a small village and began kicking around a hacky sack ball with some children.
“I later found out that those kids were HIV positive,” Zohn said. “I couldn’t communicate with these kids, I couldn’t speak the same language, but I had this little ball. And once we started playing soccer, it broke down the barriers. We were able to communicate and laugh and smile and giggle.
“I realized we can use the sport of soccer to help change behaviors of young boys and girls in Africa,” he continued. “That’s what came out of ‘Survivor.’”
Founded in 2002, Grassroot Soccer is now in 50 countries, has graduated more than 2.2 million kids from the program, and has raised $80 million to promote good health for adolescents.
Zohn is looking forward to his upcoming visit to Pittsburgh. Raised a Conservative Jew in Lexington, Mass., he has visited friends here several times in the past and worshipped at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha on a few of those visits.
“I spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh, in Squirrel Hill,” said Zohn. “I’ve been to the Tree of Life on three separate occasions, one of which was at the High Holidays. I’ve been there, I’ve been a part of that community at that time, and so with my personal connection, it makes me feel good to travel back to Pittsburgh. To be connected to the Jewish community there means a lot to me personally.”
Zohn has felt deep appreciation for being part of the Jewish community since he was a teenager mourning the death of his father.
“When I was 14 years old, my father passed away from cancer and for the year following his death, I pretty much tried to go to minyan every night,” Zohn recalled. “It’s just that community structure that is kind of built into our religion, which I think is incredible. Any way we can get people together to celebrate Judaism, and celebrate who we are as a community and a tribe and a people is important.”
A two-time cancer survivor himself, Zohn is now the global spokesperson for Stand Up 2 Cancer. Although he did not turn to daily prayer while he was sick, he did feel the power of prayer from his extended Jewish community.
“There were people all over the world saying misheberachs for me,” Zohn said. “It was a part of my survival. It was very comforting to feel like I had the support of my tribe, my community.”
As part of the U.S. Maccabi soccer team, Zohn traveled to Israel for the first time in 1997. While there, he visited the Negev with JNF and planted a tree in honor of his late father. Although he enjoyed that trip, it wasn’t until his second visit to the Jewish state — post-cancer and along with his girlfriend who would become his wife — that Israel impacted him in a significant way.
“When I went back to Israel, I had a much more transformational and powerful experience and that caused the shift in my outlook on Israel and how important it was to myself and to my now-wife, who was not Jewish, but is Jewish now thanks to that trip,” he said.
Experiencing Israel along with someone who did not grow up Jewish was impactful for Zohn.
“Seeing her witness Israel and Judaism for the first time helped me see it a little more clearly,” he said. “Having an outside perspective of how great our tribe is helped me realize how important this community was to me.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.