2019-01-02 / Voice at the Shore

Day of community service at JCC engages all ages

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice Shore Editor


Mitzvah Corp members were the main helpers when it came to sorting the supplies that younger children put in blessing bags for the homeless. Here the supplies are being sorted by (from left) Erin Berg, Ethan Rovins, Alex Wise, Jacob Wood, Sam Goldstein, Jessica Goldstein (adult), and Spencer Lutsky (small child). Mitzvah Corp members were the main helpers when it came to sorting the supplies that younger children put in blessing bags for the homeless. Here the supplies are being sorted by (from left) Erin Berg, Ethan Rovins, Alex Wise, Jacob Wood, Sam Goldstein, Jessica Goldstein (adult), and Spencer Lutsky (small child). It was a day of mitzvahs for people of all ages at the JCC on Dec. 9. In the middle of a rainy, dreary day at the shore, families with children young and old streamed into the JCC conference room for a PJ Library program to brighten the lives of local homeless people by putting together “blessing bags” for them with toiletries, socks and other essential items, as well as signed and decorated homemade greeting cards.

At that same time, a multi-generational group of 10 volunteers finished up a Super Sunday Phone-a-thon in the JCC auditorium to solicit donations for the Jewish Federation Annual Campaign, which funds local and international social services as well as Jewish life locally and in Israel. When the phone-a-thon ended, some of those volunteers headed upstairs to work on the blessing bags.


Children big and small and their parents learned about homelessness before filling blessing bags with toiletries and other items for the homeless during a PJ Library program on Dec. 9. Here, Rabbi David Weis (at center in back) leads everyone in song prior to filling the bags. Children big and small and their parents learned about homelessness before filling blessing bags with toiletries and other items for the homeless during a PJ Library program on Dec. 9. Here, Rabbi David Weis (at center in back) leads everyone in song prior to filling the bags. “It was a community get-together of community service,” said Susan Weis, director of the Board of Jewish Education, who planned the day’s programming along with Rachel Waldman, director of NextGen, a Jewish Federation group for people in their 20s and 30s. Both directors sought to get people of multiple generations working together and learning from one another.

Waldman sought to connect her young NextGen volunteers with seasoned Federation board members who could inspire the younger group with their example. Bringing these two generations together to make calls, nosh and schmooze with one another was an auspicious first step.

The Phone-a-thon was an idea conceived of by the NextGen board members as their way to give back to Jewish Federation for its generous support for NextGen Shabbat dinners, social gatherings and other programs. “We raised a little over $16,000. I think that’s a success,” said Waldman.

Although PJ Library programs, which were created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, have previously been limited to children 0-8, the blessing bag program actively involved parents, older children and some additional adults as well, said Weis, who is also director of the local PJ Library program.

Getting the whole family and community involved in making blessing bags for the homeless was part of a new push for “community service family engagement” by PJ Library. “The idea is if you train children age 3-5 to do mitzvot, it becomes just something they do,” said Weis. “And when you do it as a family, the parents are modeling for the children. Kids who see their parents doing community service are more apt to do it when they get older.”

Weis began the program by talking to the children about who they were helping and explaining what it means to be homeless. “For lots of reasons, good people don’t have a place to go home to,” said Weis. A big reason for this, she added, was that many people couldn’t find an affordable place to live. Some people might also have lost their homes in storms or floods.

Before filling the bags, children were asked to make a list of what they’d need or want if they had to spend a night outside. The children also helped write and decorate personalized notes to the homeless people receiving the bags. “They’ll read something from you and feel really good knowing there’s love inside the bags,” said Weis.

Older siblings and members of Beth Israel’s Mitzvah Corps youth group were enlisted to sort the mountain of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other personal care items collected by synagogues into piles. Once sorted, the younger children were able to grab one of each and put them into 50 bags that were donated by the JCC.

When the bags were full, Jewish Family Service volunteer coordinator Sarah Lee came to collect them and talk to the children about where the bags were going and how they would be used. “We’re not just going to give people the blessing bags; we’re also going to give them a warm coat and a way to get a place to live,” she said offering a simple description of an upcoming JFS initiative to help the homeless on January 24. “But in the meantime, your bags are going to help see them through. They really will be a blessing.”

Finding a fun project is the biggest challenge to engaging families in community service, noted Weis. But according to eight-year-old Luke Goldstein, the blessing bag project perfectly fit the bill. “It’s fun,” said Luke of his afternoon’s work, as he happily munched on pizza. “Because you’re helping people. And it’s fun putting everything in the bag.”

Parents also seemed to enjoy the day. “It’s great to see the kids do this,” said Joel Kaplan, father of Oriella and Shailee, aged seven and nine. “I’m spending my time with my family and they’re having a good time and that’s what’s important. It’s also important for the kids to see that we value this.”

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