Charity Begins At The Beginning
Tue, 10/12/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
Westchester teens work on a variety of projects in a Yonkers warehouse. courtesy of the AFYA Foundation.
Westchester teens work on a variety of projects in a Yonkers warehouse. courtesy of the AFYA Foundation.

F rom the time Sue Blumberg’s 12-year-old son Sam was 2, she’s made sure to include him in meaningful volunteer activities.

As a toddler, he visited residents at the Sarah Neuman Center for Healthcare and Rehabilitation Nursing Home. As he has grown older, Sam and his 9-year-old sister, Lena, work with their parents to sort clothes for Midnight Run, a group that delivers food and clothing to the homeless in New York City. They connect to the program through their synagogue, Bet Am Shalom in White Plains. And through UJA-Federation of New York’s Mitzvah Day programs, the Blumbergs have brought gifts to share with youngsters at a residential treatment center in Pleasantville and offered companionship at holiday parties.

Sue Blumberg, who unapologetically admits that she and her husband “schlep them” to many of these activities, said, “When we finish there, they appreciate that they’ve done something significant.” The goal, she added, is that “we hope they’ll have some empathy and appreciation for what they have.”

Inculcating the next generation with Jewish values of tzedekah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) has increasingly become a priority for parents, educators and those in the Jewish communal world.

“My very top priority for our kids is not that they learn Hebrew or Jewish history,” said Harriet Levine, educator at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh. “It’s how to be Jewish mensches. That starts with Jewish values. If you make sure they feel really, really good about being Jews, they will continue.”

Opportunities to practice these lessons come not only from schools, but through other organizations.

There are several UJA-Federation of New York programs designed expressly to encourage children and their families to participate in tzedekah.

Through the Mitzvah, Mommy and Me program, Emily Gindi regularly took her 2-year-old son to the Jewish Home Lifecare agency to sing Shabbat songs and share apple juice and challah with the residents there.

“My son learned that Shabbat doesn’t just take place around our table at 5 p.m.,” said Gindi, who also had her 4-year-old daughter participate in other UJA programs where she would help buy gifts and supplies for other children. “I think my 4-year-old totally gets it. She gets the mitzvah of doing something for somebody else.”

As Sarah Raphaely, manager of Manhattan’s Families Division at UJA-Federation, said, “Through their involvement, we teach these children the act of philanthropy within the family. We’re giving them the opportunity to teach their children about being part of the Jewish community.”

Similarly, at Temple Israel of New Rochelle’s Early Childhood Program, the Mitzvah Makers offers a way for young students to participate, in a developmentally appropriate and meaningful way, in a Mitzvah of the Month.

“From an early childhood perspective, children will remember this, because they learn through experience,” said Wendy Shemer, director of the Early Childhood Program.

As Kim Levy, chair of the Temple Israel of New Rochelle Mitzvah Makers project and mother of two boys, said, “The basic idea is that we’re part of a community and we need to give back to the community. It’s teaching them about acts of kindness and doing kind things as part of tikkun olam. Ultimately, these children are so blessed. We give them a sense of the bigger world. The point of Mitzvah Makers is to bring together parents and teachers together to work with the kids. Some [of the learning] is in class, but a lot is at home.”

With her 5-year-old son, Xander, Levy said, “There’s a lot of going and buying things, like toothbrushes for a dental hygiene drive, pajamas, or small birthday gifts for children.”

At school, in honor of Earth Day, the children trooped out to the temple’s newly dug organic garden — which, in April, was mostly a rocky plot of dirt — to help remove some of the stones and prepare the ground for the gardeners who would soon arrive to plant vegetables.

“This works on two levels,” said Rabbi Scott B. Weiner, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of New Rochelle. “We want them to learn the specific mitzvah of caring for the Earth, as well as the idea that with mitzvot, you don’t do it once. This will be months of hard work.”

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With older children, these lessons in tzedekah and tikkun olam take on more sophistication, with a goal shared by educators and parents that the practice takes place at home as well as at school and within synagogue.

When students learn about the week’s Torah portion, “we discuss what are Jewish values,” said Cantor Marcey Wagner, director of Education and Jewish Learning at Bet Am Shalom. “It’s about doing God’s work on Earth. It’s making the Jewish connections.” As a family tzedekah project, students and their parents sorted clothing for Midnight Run. Last fall, students and families went apple picking with residents of a nearby shelter for homeless families

Similarly, at Woodlands Community Temple, a Reform congregation in Greenburgh, there is a strong focus on teaching children about ethical values in ways that inspire them to apply the values at home.

“In every grade level, acts of loving kindness are part of the curriculum,” said Levine. The teacher will discuss their relevance to Jewish values. “When our kids are about to become bar/bat mitzvah, they do a tzedekah statement,” she continued. They are expected to donate some of their gift money to a Jewish organization and a non-Jewish one, underscoring the concept that “as Jews, we are required to help each other. It’s important to help our neighbors, and community and world.”

Michele Montague, the mother of three boys, said that the guide to mitzvot that her two eldest sons received prior to their bar mitzvah was helpful. “It’s always been on my radar, but I didn’t know how to implement it,” she said. “This gave me a way to take it into the home.”

Montague had always brought her children to pay shiva calls; with the guide in hand, she also brought them to other lifecycle events, like a bris. Her sons even made her breakfast when she wasn’t feeling well, as an expression of a mitzvah.

“It ties it all together, and gives meaning,” said Levine. “It’s not just rote Hebrew or history. Although we can’t do everything, and can’t fix it all, we have to start somewhere, with one person and one project.”

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For teenagers, said Nike Silberstein, communal education consultant at the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at BJE-NY, it’s even more important to connect in an authentic way.

“Now we have to be very attuned to what our teens want,” said Silberstein. “They want authentic issues, they’re globally conscious, and they want future-oriented, skills projects.”

Danielle Butin, founder of the AFYA Foundation of America, has a model that children and teens embrace.

“It’s about owning a concept, and really experiencing something,” said Butin. “It’s having a multi-sensory, multi-exposure level of involvement, which is far more sophisticated. It’s not by writing a check or working one day in a soup kitchen.”

Working out of a warehouse in Yonkers, Butin’s organization offers a way for children and teens to marshal their charitable impulses by running drives for everything from medical supplies to sporting equipment, and then organizing the collections, and raising money, to ship these items to their destinations.

“A lot of work that’s being done locally and nationally is promoting teen Jewish philanthropy that takes on a good deal of sophistication,” said Rabbi Arnold D. Samlan, director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, Westchester Center, in White Plains. “It’s building skill sets about how to determine where to donate, what are the right questions to ask. Educators are asking, ‘what do we need to think about tzedekah?’ We’re educating children and teenagers for a Jewish future that hasn’t emerged yet, and are re-tooling kids to be leaders in a Jewish community that doesn’t exist.”