2016-01-06 / Home

Adath Emanu-El teens build connection with homeless peers at event


Covenant House client Sharem Moran (left), 19, of Pennsauken and Camden, shares a milkshake moment with Adath Emanu-El song leader Rebecca Wallace, 18, at the holiday party held at the synagogue on Dec. 16. Covenant House client Sharem Moran (left), 19, of Pennsauken and Camden, shares a milkshake moment with Adath Emanu-El song leader Rebecca Wallace, 18, at the holiday party held at the synagogue on Dec. 16. The December holidays proved to be the perfect backdrop for a lesson in caring at Adath Emanu-El in Mt. Laurel. The three-part program that began last month will wrap up this coming spring as teens at the Reform synagogue continue a new connection with young adults who, despite tough breaks, still have a lot in common with their Jewish counterparts.

Adath teens from seventh grade up, including post-confirmation students, met during Chanukah with four clients from Covenant House, a facility that provides shelter for homeless youth in Atlantic City and also does counseling at a Camden drop-in center. The Jewish students learned how their peers became homeless and sought ways to help.

“They shared very difficult stories about the ways in which young people could possibly become homeless,” said Jennifer Williams, Covenant House’s senior development manager for South Jersey.”

A week later, about 60 teens from Adath Emanu-El hosted 17 young adults from Atlantic City and Camden County for a holiday party geared to celebrating the similarities among the youth.

The Covenant House clients are considered “precariously housed,” Williams said. “They largely come from families that have broken down and can no longer care for them, or are in unsafe conditions with a parent or boyfriend. They may be aging out of foster care, or had jobs but lost them. These kids are a day, or a paycheck, or one argument away from being on the street.”

The Atlantic City branch has 27 beds in its crisis shelter, but 30 to 40 young adults age 18 to their early 20s sleep there nightly, some of them using mats set up on the floor. The average stay is three to four months.

About 300 young folks spend at least a night at Covenant House annually, but the organization serves closer to 1,000—including those who are on the street and not ready to come inside.

At the holiday party, Adath Emanu-El Rabbi Benjamin David explained why he wanted his passion for helping homeless youth to rub off on his students.

“This night is not about charity. It’s about expanding our understanding of community and getting to know our neighbors and what they bring to this world,” David said. “Tikkun Olam is not just about giving gift cards and providing a meal. It’s about learning how much we have in common, even if we come from very different places.”

He and

Williams will bring the youths together again in the spring for discussions and other activities. The party, with its fun ice-breaking activities and culinary favorites such as pizza and milkshakes, set the tone for more shared experiences.

Rebecca Wallace, 18, a senior at Moorestown High School and a song leader at Adath Emanu-El, called the project inspirational. “I sometimes forget how blessed I am. This is a good cause,” she said.

Lia Richter, 17, another Moorestown High School senior, added, “It’s our responsibility to help each other—not only as Jews, but as humans.”

Adath and Covenant House youth sat at tables based on their birth month to munch on party fare. As they joined in activities, they sought out kids wearing the same color sweatshirt or found someone with the same first name. They threw balls to one another and were urged to find someone they hadn’t yet talked with.

“This is good,” said Atlantic City resident Jaheil Rogers, 21, of the Adath outreach party. “There is a lot of diversity here.”

Rogers was joking with Lauren Rosenberg, 15, a Mount Laurel resident and Lenape High School sophomore. “I love getting to meet new people and seeing that we’re not all that different,” Rosenberg said.

Sharem Moran, 19, of Pennsauken and Camden, said she found herself homeless due to family and mental health issues. She hopes to get back on track by continuing her education at Atlantic Community College. “This is a very pure way of having fun,” she said of the party. “I’m enjoying it.”

Trenton native Shermaine Carter, 22, gravitated to Atlantic City as she grew older and found that her mother could no longer care for her. “I’m very friendly, and I like how you get to meet new people here, see the differences and similarities,” said Carter, who hopes to go back to school and eventually run a day-care center. “It’s my first time coming to a synagogue, and I’ve seen a lot of things I never saw before.”

Matt Wagner, 21, of Camden, was grateful for the gift card he received at the party, and for the company. Family issues and job loss contributed to problems that landed him in jail for a stretch, but he’s now on probation and said he would stay on track with the help of Covenant House and activities like the one at Adath. “I’m not religious, but I get hope from talking to people like the ones I met tonight,” he said.

Mount Laurel resident Jonah Friedman, 13, a seventh-grade student at Harrington Middle School and Adath Emanu-El Religious School, said the project was eyeopening. “I was interacting with people I haven’t met before, which was very educational—and the kids were nice.” .

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