Nonprofit Work & Studying Abroad: Meet Rebecca Neuwirth (‘91)

Rebecca Neuwirth (‘91) embodies the Stuyvesant experience of seizing the school’s diverse opportunities to pursue one’s greatest passions.

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Name: Rebecca Neuwirth

Age: 50

Date of Birth: May 23, 1973

Graduation Year: 1991

Occupation: Chief Strategy Officer at Documented

Throughout the decades, Stuyvesant High School has become a symbol of academic excellence, providing opportunities for students from all economic and ethnic backgrounds to explore their passions. Rebecca Neuwirth (‘91) embodies this experience, going on to become a Yale University scholar and build her career in nonprofit organizations for over 20 years. She celebrates and connects with her German-Jewish heritage, striving to help people tap into their best and most cooperative selves. Her passion for reconciliation and bridge-building directly stems from her experiences in childhood, her time at Stuyvesant, and studying abroad.

Growing up, Neuwirth’s mother promoted enriching education and provided stability so Neuwirth could thrive academically without focusing on money. “[My mother] worked unbelievably hard, starting with nothing besides a loving mom of her own,” Neuwirth said. “[She gave] me opportunities to study that she never had and [to] grow up in a home with security. That stability made me feel like instead of similarly needing to focus on security and making money only, I could work on something that was intrinsically meaningful.” At Stuyvesant, Neuwirth discovered an abundance of opportunities that allowed her to reflect on the work she wanted to pursue. “I did feel like a lot of us were open to opportunity at Stuyvesant, where you could just drop the name [Stuyvesant] and doors would open. But, I was in a state where I could ask, ‘Well, what do I want to do that's also really meaningful?’ I actually had a hard time imagining just doing something for money,” Neuwirth said.

During her high school years, Neuwirth expanded her search for meaningful work, fascinated by activist movements of the past. “In high school, I had a Hebrew School teacher from Bulgaria who was very involved in social justice. He spoke about sit-ins at segregated counters during the Civil Rights movement.” In addition to activism, Neuwirth explored non-profit organizations, which eventually became her career focus. “I interned in high school with [former American Symphony Orchestra member] Eugene Carr [...] to help get young people discounted tickets to cultural events in New York. Eventually, [this program] became a nonprofit with his leadership and that of Ada Ciniglio called High 5 Tickets To the Arts—it is now part of Arts Connection.”

While Stuyvesant motivated her passions and career plans, Neuwirth was also inspired by its diverse and ambitious community. “Going to Stuyvesant for me, at least, was just like a massive breath of fresh air in terms of people coming from different backgrounds,” Neuwirth said. “[I was] coming from a private school background where there was some bit of diversity but not very much economic diversity. It was an immensely wonderful opportunity to be with people from all over, some of whom were commuting two hours to get there every day, which was so extraordinary.” Neuwirth described the exhilarating feeling of attending Stuyvesant in the ‘90s as a turning point in many students’ lives. “[Stuyvesant consisted of an] amazing mix of kids and opportunity and the feeling that we were at the precipice and we could do so much. It was just a very exciting time.”

Her junior year, Neuwrith took a semester abroad in Vienna through a program offered at Stuyvesant. Equipped with the language skills she developed in her Stuyvesant German classes, Neuwirth was well prepared for the experience. It became one of her most cherished memories at Stuyvesant, inspiring future pursuits. “It was a wild and wonderful time. A small group from Stuy and a few other New York schools were there at the same time. Some of us would go with a group of Austrian young people to tons of opera; theater; concerts; fantastical, beautiful coffee shops with the best ever hot chocolate; have long elegant dinners with intellectual conversation; [and] go to these crazy balls (as in Cinderella) where waltzes were danced and men wore white gloves,” Neuwirth said. Alongside her host sister, Katharina, Neuwirth embraced the beauties of Vienna. “In Vienna, her family took me to museums and enrolled me in dance classes, and took me running in the Vienna woods and out to enjoy the views from the hills surrounding the city.”

Neuwirth recalls her and her host family’s experience during one of the greatest cultural shifts of the early ‘90s: the fall of the Berlin Wall, which separated Allies-occupied West Berlin from the Soviet-occupied East. “It was an exciting adventure altogether. [...] The Berlin Wall fell when my exchange sister was living with us in New York, and after that, when we were in Vienna, many people from East Europe started visiting and coming to Western Europe. Austria was a country with a border to the east and saw a lot of movement of people,” Neuwirth said. 

Though the history unfolding around her left a major impact on Neuwirth, so too did the remnants of Vienna’s Holocaust past. This led Neuwirth to reflect on her connection to her Jewish heritage. “I became more aware of being Jewish there too, and went to synagogue sometimes in the Judengasse, ‘Jew street,’ and was very conscious and critical of how Austria at that time still officially refused much responsibility for its complicity and allyship with Germany during World War II. [...] That felt like they were unwilling to look critically at their history and with honesty. Germany was and is way ahead in doing this,” Neuwirth said. “My father is Jewish and I converted to Judaism and had grown up Jewish, and all of that meant a lot more to me when it was an identity that was unusual and not very normal as it was in New York.”

Neuwirth recounts how her experience in Vienna altered the trajectory of her life, impacting her path in higher education and her future career. After graduating from Stuyvesant, Neuwirth traveled to Vienna again in the summer of 1991. While her love for Vienna remained, she aspired to visit a less tradition-bound area. “I felt that [at that point] I knew Vienna very well,” Neuwirth said. “I felt that to really understand, it would be amazing to go abroad again, but I wanted to try something that felt more ‘real,’ big-city-like and less fairytale quaint.”

Neuwirth began studying at Yale University that fall, ultimately choosing to pursue a dual degree in German Studies and Ethics, Politics, and Economics. “I had become completely fascinated by Holocaust history and questions of how these amazing civilizations, which had so much in terms of intellect and art and cultural salons, [...] could possibly perpetuate something so evil. I was interested in how culture and history came together, and German Studies had that holistic interdisciplinary approach within the humanities.” She also wrote and edited for The Yale Herald, the university’s weekly publication.

However, Neuwirth always intended to return to Europe—this time to Berlin. “Berlin was clearly the most exciting German-speaking city in the early 1990s after the Wall fell. [It] has always been very dynamic, and I was very curious.” In her junior year of college, this dream became a reality, as Neuwirth received a summer grant from Yale and the U.S. Student Fulbright Program to study in Berlin. “Berlin was fascinating as [the] East and West had just joined together, so I met young people who had grown up under socialism and others who had grown up under a milder capitalism, more like our own system but German. Again, young people seemed super intellectual; they loved interrogating ideas and staying up all night drinking beer and discussing theories. [There was] some theater too, super wild stuff [but] no balls or hot chocolate and less opera.” Still drawn to Germany, Neuwirth returned to Berlin in 1999 to attend Freie Universität Berlin, where she received her master’s degree in education.

Returning to the United States, Neuwirth was once again captivated by nonprofit work and has been involved with various nonprofit organizations in the last few decades. “I have worked with immigrants and refugees for the last five years, focusing primarily on management and strategy, fundraising, and communications. Before that, I worked on bridge-building projects and humanitarian support with Jewish organizations,” Neuwirth said. “Right now, I am Chief Strategy Officer at Documented, a journalism nonprofit that creates trusted, multilingual news and information for immigrant communities in New York.”

Neuwirth owes her passion for nonprofit work to her experiences growing up and studying abroad. “All of those reasons [inspired my career]: the privilege of having grown up without too much fear and the fascination—partially academic and also through my time abroad—with how it might be possible to get people on a better track with each other, the chance to see a nonprofit in action and work there to realize an idea, and role models.” 

However, Neuwirth attributes Stuyvesant for showing her what meaningful, genuine work in the world looks like. “The best thing Stuy taught me was to be real and look things straight in the eye,” Neuwirth said. “That’s what I love about my friends and peers there. They were down-to-earth, smart, and real. The world—it turns out—is full of inflated everything: egos, stats, [and] stories. [...] I think Stuy’s mix of kids, incredible range of activities, diversity of teachers and styles, and culture just modeled what it meant to act in the world without too much artifice or self-delusion.”