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8 Questions for Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau (aka Dimo): Out-of-the-box pizza creator, Iowa native, socially conscious entrepreneur

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If you frequent Chicago’s bar scene, chances are you’ve walked, ran or stumbled to Dimo’s Pizza at some point. Or perhaps their famous mac n’ cheese pizza has long been a staple of your weekly late night diet. But did you know that Dimo is Jewish?

Iowa native Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau brought Madison Wisconsin’s famous Ian’s Pizza to Chicago about five years ago, much to the delight of Badger alumni and everyone on Clark Street (and just recently at Six Corners!) looking for a quick slice. The restaurant specializes in radical toppings, adapting every comfort food you can imagine to fit on a large, flat and crispy crust, or as Dimo says, “we’ve always seen pizza as a delivery vehicle for the best foods imaginable.”

So why change to Dimo’s? If you were confused by last year’s name change, be assured that it’s the same company, same people and same pizza. Syrkin-Nikolau explains:

“I felt a disconnect was growing between what Ian's stood for and what I stood for.  I'd opened Ian's in Chicago as a local and independent business and operated it as such for the period of four years. Ultimately, that freedom provided us with the opportunity to do everything that we saw fit to best serve those who entered our doors. I choose to retain that freedom and in doing so was forced to rebrand as Dimo's.”

But Dimo’s is more than a name, and Syrkin-Nikolau aims to do more than satisfy people’s cravings. He is equally as passionate about the community role that local business can play in making a difference. So whether you’re hungry for cheesy potato pizza or social change, Dimo is A Jew You Should Know.

1. You have quite the last name. What’s the story there?

Syrkin is my mother's middle name and my grandmother's maiden name ... still with me? I've come to this name via a man named Nachman Syrkin, an eccentric fellow known for—amongst other things—being one of the founders of Labour Zionism. He dedicated his life in an all-consuming manner to developing this theory and doing all that he could to propagate it throughout the Jewish sphere.  So I suppose, my mother, being the feminist that she is, decided that if she didn't pass Syrkin onward (My grandmother had no brothers), the name would die in this lineage. My father is 100% Greek and from him I received Nikolau.  I sometimes joke that he's lucky to have gotten anything into my name at all. 

2. What is the best pizza you’ve ever created (in your opinion) and why?

We made a pizzaa couple months back that has roasted poblano peppers, grilled shrimp, pineapple and pico de gallo. That slice was absolutely incredible! With pizza, it's always the balance of the flavors in combination with the perfect distribution upon a crust that is content to sit at the bottom and out of the way, but still be able to deliver a crunch with every bite.

3. Dimo’s is known for appealing to the late-night crowd. What’s the weirdest/funniest story you can tell us?

We certainly are a popular late night destination given our location within Wrigleyville. One time, years ago, I took a delivery to a woman who tried to pay in sticks of Trident gum. I had to figure that out. Another time, after we were closed, a guy came to the door begging for pizza. He looked desperate and instead of turning him away, I went to the door. He said his wife was pregnant and in labor and wanted a Mac N' Cheese pizza after she delivered their baby. I smiled, let him in and made the pie.  We took a photo on the way out. A few years later, in he walked and we got to reminisce about the night. Apparently it won him big points and I was happy to be able to make it happen for him. I wonder what they named the kid...

4. Owning a pizza place in Chicago is like selling candy in Candyland. You make it look easy, but describe the work that it takes to succeed.

Well I think that depends upon what you think the relationship is between candy and Candyland. The simple answer is that success must be your only option. When you want success as much as you want to breathe, you'll be successful. I know that sounds like a cop-out answer because it doesn't describe the work that it takes to succeed, but that is because success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  

5. Dimo’s is really community oriented. Why do you feel it’s important to go beyond making good pizza?

Well, generally speaking, my philosophy revolves around the idea that if you make a product that people absolutely love and provide an experience that is so personal you develop relationships (not that kind) with your customers, you're going to make money.  And it's what you do with that money that matters. I think we're at the beginning of a huge movement going on to start to operate for-profit businesses with for-profit efficiencies but with non-profit goals. You see this increasingly with social enterprise, Internet startups, and more and more in the small business world. I just recently visited plantchicago.org. They're a great example of a company that realizes that there’s a way to make money, make a living, and contribute to the betterment of society. I think if we do it on a large enough scale, I think it's something that can be used to help solve many of the problems our society faces today. 

6. What do you love most about what you do?

It's new every day!

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn’t be a food service entrepreneur, what would you do?

Who says I'm not? Less importantly, who says I'm a food service entrepreneur?  I just happen to be selling pizza. It could be widgets. Make the best possible product, make an incredible experience and I mean magnitudes above the rest, use those profits for the things you truly believe in and what's the difference does it make what business you're in?  Does that answer the question?

8. What’s your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago (and why)?

That's easy. I eat!  Favorite quick deli is The Bagel. I've been there enough times for them to know me by name.

Double Chai Check-In: Roslyn Turner, pancreatic cancer’s greatest adversary

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Double Chai Check-In: Roslyn Turner photo

It was on a boat on Lake Michigan at last year's WYLD on the Water party, which celebrated her and the other 35 honorees of Chicago's first ever Jewish 36 Under 36 list, when Roslyn Turner realized it was time to give back in not just her spare time, but her professional time.

Turner was talking with fellow 36er Jonny Imerman, who has made a career of helping cancer patients through Imerman Angels, which gives survivors one-on-one support from those who endured similar experiences, when she felt inspired to do more. This from the person who had already been involved for many years with the Michael Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and its Young Professionals Board, helped start the Jewish Education Team Young Professionals group, and has a laundry list of organizations she supports: Alzheimer's Association, Bright Pink, ADL, AIPAC and the Auxiliary Board of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Nonetheless, she decided to do something she had been thinking about for months: move on from her marketing position at Affy Tapple, LLC and start applying to graduate school. She will attend Loyola University Chicago in the fall.

"I really felt like going back to get a Masters in Social Work would provide me with the tools to take my desire for just helping people and giving back to do that in so many different fields," Turner said. "I was definitely inspired by being on a boat with so many other people who were recognized for all the great work they did."

Double Chai Check-In: Roslyn Turner photo 2

Turner does her own great work on the Rolfe Foundation's Young Professionals Board (YPB). This past year since being named 36 under 36, she planned a big holiday event in November that drew more than 150 people, and in the spring, YPB sold more than 100 March Madness brackets for a fundraiser.

The Rolfe Foundation specifically focuses on early detection for pancreatic cancer, which is known as a "silent killer," and it has been an important part of Turner's life ever since losing both her parents to pancreatic cancer.

"When I came upon the Rolfe Foundation, what I loved was that there was this group of young professionals that were really getting involved," Turner said. "I love being a part of something that I'm with people who understand it and we all get to come together and honor our loved ones who've been affected by doing something to give back."

This Saturday night, July 27, the Rolfe Foundation's YPB is putting on its biggest event yet. Cruisin' for a Cure will take guests on a boat cruise on Lake Michigan that includes live music, a silent auction and raffle, food from Harry Caray's, a VIP cocktail reception and after party, a guest speaker from Johns Hopkins University and, of course, a view of the fireworks over Navy Pier.

Planning for these events and her job have kept her busy, but Turner did take some time this past year to go on a trip that held great significance for her. She participated in this year's March of the Living, an event in which youth from all over the world walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau in a tribute to Holocaust victims and survivors, and then travel to Israel to experience a thriving Jewish community.

"My father was from Poland and was a Holocaust survivor so it was very important for me to travel there and see firsthand what happened," Turner said. "It was such an emotional journey but a trip of a lifetime."

As for her next journey in graduate school, Turner says she is both scared and excited, but says that she knows it will be worth it and she can't wait to see where it will take her.

"I want to take the tragedy in my life and make the best possible scenario out of it," she said, "and in the memory of my parents, doing something that can help someone else so that hopefully they never have to be in this situation."

Turner hopes everyone will come out to Cruisin' for a Cure, and also plans to be at this year's WYLD on Mag Mile party on Aug. 15 to celebrate with the 2013 class of Double Chai in the Chi.

Presenting Chicago's second annual Jewish 36 under 36 list!

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Double Chai in the Chi 2013 photo

From rabbis reinvigorating Judaism, to founders of innovative nonprofits, to social media gurus and bloggers, this city is full of young Jewish leaders, humanitarians, educators and social activists striving to make the world a better place each in their own unique way. Take a look at the list!

Interview with pro wrestler AJ Kirsch

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Interview with pro wrestler AJ Kirsch photo

AJ Kirsch is on the upward swing of his career. You might remember him from WWE's Tough Enough with Stone Cold Steve Austin. He was also a candidate for TNA's Gut Check. Kirsch is an independent wrestler and promotes Hoodslam Wrestling. Although he did not grow up strictly Jewish per say, his father's whole family is Jewish and he was just interviewed by Larry King (so that's cool). Kirsch is an extremely nice and entertaining guy. Here is what he had to say:

What was your Jewish upbringing like?
Well, my dad and his entire family is Jewish, but we went to church as kids because my mom was far more involved in religion than my dad was. Gotta keep Mom happy! (laughs)

First recall you on Tough Enough; did you wrestle before that? If so, where and what was your training?
I did. I've been performing as a professional wrestler since 2005. And when I say "professional wrestler," I mean the kind on TV. Not to be confused with mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighting. Signing with WWE has been the dream since I was 12.

Training was absolutely brutal. I remember taking my very first bump, which is wrestling jargon for taking a fall, and I just remember thinking "This hurts so bad! I'm not sure I wanna do this anymore." But I kept coming back because I had made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do.

What was the Tough Enough experience like? Do you keep in touch with any of those guys?
Tough Enough was absolutely surreal, an experience I treasure to this day. Just getting a chance to learn under some of the greatest to ever lace a pair of boots is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There were moments when I literally had to remind myself out loud that I wasn't dreaming.

I became good friends with Eric Watts. Martin Casaus and I have also become friends since the show. I keep in pretty regular contact with those guys.

You were up for TNA's Gut Check. What was that like? Will we ever see you in a TNA ring?
TNA Gut Check was just a way to keep my name out there, keep people talking. It was humbling to see how many people on my social media networks supported me throughout the competition, but I sincerely doubt you're going to see me in a TNA ring any time soon, if ever.

You were recently on with Larry King. How was that experience?
Another surreal experience that I never thought would actually happen. It's always something special to meet someone who is the best in the world at something, and this was no exception. I was really nervous just moments before the interview, but once we started talking, it was like it was just me and him.

Interview with pro wrestler AJ Kirsch photo 2

If you could get in the ring with Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Goldberg, or Kevin Nash who would it be and why? (Note they are all Jewish)
Probably Kevin Nash. I have a blast wrestling big guys.

Who is the best wrestler you have had the chance to be in the ring with? What was that like?
I actually got in the ring and rolled around with both "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock on WWE Tough Enough. Don't make me choose! (laughs)

Whats next for AJ Kirsch?
I'm concentrating mostly on building Hoodslam, an Oakland-based wrestling promotion that's kind of the antithesis of the WWE. Hoodslam has me more excited about professional wrestling than anything I've ever been a part of.

Kirsch encourages everyone to follow him on Twitter @AJKirsch. He also accepts all friend requests on Facebook.

Double Chai Check-In: What’s new with Amy Witt, school fitness proponent and world-repairer

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Double Chai Check-In: What’s new with Amy Witt photo

Since being named to Double Chai in the Chi: Chicago’s first ever Jewish 36 under 36 list last year, Amy Witt has been busy making Chicago a healthier place.

Witt, who grew up in Deerfield, spends her days as the director of development and strategy for Chicago Run, a local non-profit that promotes health and wellness initiatives for high-needs Chicago public schools—its goal is to get kids up and running and promote an active, healthy lifestyle amongst children in Chicago.

Last month, she participated in the ROI Summit in Jerusalem, which brought together 150 young, innovative Jewish entrepreneurs from 37 countries around the world to network, collaborate, and get the support and space they need to help turn their ideas into dynamic new avenues for engagement in Jewish life. The ROI Community, part of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Philanthropic Network, is an international network of activists and change makers who are redefining Jewish engagement for a new generation of global citizens.

After graduating college in 2007, Witt joined Teach for America and spent two years teaching fifth grade in the south Bronx, which she says was a life-changing experience. During her time there, she got her students involved with the Mighty Milers program. Run by the New York Road Runners Association, the program promoted 15 minutes of running outside each day, which resulted in more focused students and a more productive learning environment.

At the end of her two years, she participated in the Schusterman Family Foundation Reality program for Teach for America members and alumni, which brings these teachers to Israel for 10 days.

“It was on that trip that for the first time in my life that I really was able to realize that my passion for service and for working to improve some of the issues around education inequity really come from this Jewish place of tikkun olam and comes from Jewish values,” Witt said. “That connection for me was incredibly powerful—just to be able to link my passion for social justice with my upbringing and the values I’ve always grown up with based in Judaism.

When she returned from the Reality program and still inspired by her experience in New York, she moved back to Chicago and learned of Chicago Run, which at the time was only a year old. Since joining Chicago Run four years ago, Witt has helped the organization grow and expand to serving 16,000 students in 55 schools in 33 different neighborhoods around Chicago, introducing running, promoting a healthy lifestyle and improving the self-esteem of the students in the schools they serve.

Witt also serves on the Board of Directors for Repair the World, which she says is working to make service a defining part of American Jewish life.

So what’s next for Witt?

“[I’d like to continue] to work more with the Jewish community in Chicago to really link the social justice and service world with the Jewish values, because for me that’s been such a powerful connection,” she said. “Continuing to get more and more involved with the Jewish community in Chicago is definitely a goal of mine.”

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