Jonathan Hammel
Writer, physician, host of "The Creators' Podcast".

Julianna Margulies: celebrity done right

Mrs. Margulies and the author.
Mrs. Margulies and the author

“Nurse Hathaway, help me, I’m dying!” said a man clutching his heart, lying on a sidewalk in the middle of Times Square, a big smile spread across his face.

“I’m so sorry, sir, but you know I’m not a real nurse; and I know you’re not really having a heart attack!”

This sort of scene was familiar to actress Julianna Margulies, while strolling the streets of New York on a break from filming the hit TV show « ER », in the early 1990’s. 

But during the hour we spent chatting for my podcast « Les Créateurs », it became clear that when it comes to real life, Mrs. Margulies doesn’t shy out from her responsibilities.

In 2021, after hosting the Holocaust Remembrance Day for CBS, she realized that only 19 out of 50 States featured compulsory Holocaust education. In the documentary she narrated, students in a Texas high-school were all asked simple questions:

“Do any of you know what the Holocaust was? Do you know who Hitler was?”

Blank looks filled the room.

The teacher welcomed an elderly woman to the class. The students stared at their phones, fidgeted in their seats.

After an hour of listening to this woman, a Holocaust survivor who shared her story and answered any question the kids had, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Selfies were taken, hands were held. A door had been opened. And the students were furious: Why didn’t we know about this?

For Mrs. Margulies, a Jewish woman who has always felt close to her roots (if you’ve ever visited a Holocaust Memorial museum in the USA and felt like you recognized the voice narrating the exhibit, you now know why), this was a clear call for action.

“I knew Jack Kliger, the president and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, so I reached out, and we decided to start an educational program.”

The program, called HESP (for Holocaust Education School Partnership), is a paid internship at the Museum of Jewish Heritage for undergraduate and graduate students in the NYC area. Interns are trained on how to teach the history of the Holocaust, and then go on to work with middle and high school students in NYC public schools where Holocaust education is not on the curriculum. After the class, students are bused to the museum, to « see with their own eyes ».

“It’s been a journey,” says Mrs. Margulies. “The first semester, we had two interns. Then, we had six, and this semester we have ten.” The goal is to expand to other states, and eventually to the whole country. “If we can make these kids the heroes of the next generation, if we can make them the ones who stand up and say no to evil, then maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

This isn’t Mrs. Margulies’ first bout into philanthropy. In 1998, she was key in creating « Project ALS » (for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) when Jenifer Estess, a close friend, got sick with the disease. Fundraising was never her strong point, but she felt she had to use her new-found celebrity for good. So she brought her friend, actor George Clooney, to the first gala. The following year, M. Clooney brought some of his friends, and pretty soon Brad Pitt and the whole cast of the TV show « Friends » were on stage. Mrs. Margulies could finally relax and (happily) take a step back. Job done; today, Project ALS is still active, doing important work in the field of stem-cell research.

A few years later, Mrs. Margulies met Erin Merryn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. At the time, Mrs. Merryn was crusading across America to pass Erin’s law, the first US sexual abuse prevention education law requiring children be educated in schools. Once again, Mrs. Margulies jumped onboard.

“After seven years of trying to get it passed in New York, I did what I’m loathe to do: I called up my friends, Oprah Winfrey, Mariska Hargitay, Katie Couric, and asked them to get their voice out there.” Sure enough, that did the trick, and Erin’s law has now been passed in New York state, as well as 38 other states, plus India and Canada. 

There is a certain comfort in seeing the resolve in Mrs. Margulies’ eyes when she speaks of these philanthropic projects (she is also involved in « Let America Read », and advocated for one Anne Frank’s diary, which she credits with changing her life and helping her write her own book, an autobiography called Sunshine Girl). It is a resolve that shows us that in these uncertain and often selfish times, some people are willing to use their wealth and notoriety to fight for what they believe is a rightful cause.

“It’s all about education,” says Mrs. Margulies, herself the mother of a teenaged son. “These kids, it’s not their fault: if nobody told them about the Holocaust, how are they supposed to know?”

So, if by chance, you meet Mrs. Margulies (who recalls fainting after pricking her own finger with a needle on the set of « ER ») and ask her to take a look at a strange-looking wart, she would probably not be much help.

But with a growing number of HESP interns and students each semester, with stem-cell research booming and Erin’s law on the verge of being passed in all fifty states, you can count on Mrs. Margulies to use the platform she has to try and do the right thing.

Even if that means leaving strangers on the sidewalk, clutching their heart, a big smile spread across their face.

About the Author
Jonathan Hammel is a Paris-based physician specializing in vascular medicine. He's an accomplished author with three novels to his name, notably "Stéthos & Cie," recipient of the prestigious Hippocrates prize in 2008. In 2023, Hammel ventured into podcasting, launching "The Creators' Podcast." This captivating show features insightful interviews with top-tier professionals across various fields, including writers, doctors, actors, and philanthropists. Hammel's expertise, literary achievements, and passion for highlighting exceptional creators make him a prominent figure in the realm of medicine and artistic expression.
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