Jewish Teens Meet World in Mount Laurel, NJ

We were looking for a way to bring the JFCS’ work and message into the congregation, and expose our teens to real-world social action and justice work.” (Rabbi Benjamin David)

by Barbara S. Rothschild

Learning by doing is the guiding lesson plan behind a new elective for teens attending evening religious school at Adath Emanu-El.

The new hands-on class at Mount Laurel’s Reform synagogue is called Repairing the World. It’s helping to keep busy eighth- and ninth-graders attracted to religious studies after they turn 13 and become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. That’s when entering high school, pursuing other interests and having limited time typically account for a significant drop-off in the number of students who continue through confirmation at age 16.

This is the first semester for the course, which received a $3,500 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, a division of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. It is taught in partnership with Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey, a federation agency based in Cherry Hill.

“We were looking for a way to bring the JFCS’ work and message into the congregation, and expose our teens to real-world social action and justice work – and the light bulbs went off,” said Rabbi Benjamin David, spiritual leader at Adath Emanu-El and a key proponent of the idea.

“This is a win-win. The organization gets to share its message and get help from young people who are so eager and energetic,” he said. “It’s a class where teens can learn about the JFCS’ mission and its work – and how it is an extension of Torah. It takes our learning to a practical place where the kids roll up their sleeves and get into the community, plus it helps them better understand our Jewish values.”

The ungraded class is taught on Wednesday evenings by Assistant Director of Education Jennifer James, a Mount Laurel resident who helped create the partnership model. The grant money pays for supplies and to compensate staffers who put in extra time for trips and other activities.

“I wanted to do experiential education where the kids are active rather than passive learners,” James said. “The kids are so enthusiastic. They’re engaged and curious.”

The class, which started in January, attracted 10 students for its initial run. Course units include hunger, special-needs adults, domestic abuse and the elderly.

Each unit ties in with Jewish values and virtues. For example, the virtue of welcoming the stranger is discussed during the unit on domestic abuse and shelters. Respect for elders is another Jewish virtue extolled in the Torah and its sacred lessons.

For the unit on hunger, JFCS Director of Volunteers Andi Lowe presented students with a food stamp challenge that gave them insight on how much money a family needs to buy groceries every week. The teens ran a food drive and visited JFCS’ food pantry, where they delivered donations, toured the facilities and stocked shelves.

Because of confidentiality rules, students don’t often interact with clients. But they learned about who needs help getting food in the community, and also learned about how a kosher facility is run. Following their visit to the food pantry, they decided to conduct a second food drive and revisit the pantry on their own, James said.

The unit on special-needs adults was a real eye-opener for the teens, she said.

“They were able to visit JFCS social workers and a few clients, who talked very frankly about what their life was like living with disabilities and trying to hold down a job,” James said.

The unit on the elderly included a visit to a local independent and assisted living community for seniors, where the teens and the residents conversed about companionship and other concerns.

“We want our students to learn about the issue, learn what the JFCS is doing about the issue, and figure out what they as teens can do about it,” James said. “The idea is to empower the kids.”

Daniel Schwartz , 15, of Evesham, said he is excited about helping to make his community a better place.

“I was taken by how many people are in hunger, and learned that we should not judge,” the Cherokee High School freshman said. “You should always help people out, no matter what they look like, and appreciate that you are fortunate to live such a happy life.”

Added Sam Greenebaum, 14, a Mount Laurel resident who attends eighth grade at Harrington Middle School, “It was cool to learn about the community and see things actually happening at the food pantry, where you learned how much food people can go through so easily.”

Greenebaum said the class has given him new insights. “We’re learning how any of these people in need could be our neighbors,” he said.

One recent evening, students met in a circle to discuss the issue of domestic abuse in the community, then listened to Voorhees resident Hilary Platt, coordinator of JFCS’ Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home), talk about the program before rolling up their sleeves to assemble toiletry and safety kits for distribution to victims of domestic abuse.

She explained how those victims often feel helpless, and how her program gently guides people into taking back power – even if it takes a series of small steps. “No one should be ashamed to be in this position. It can happen to any one of us,” she said.

Platt said it’s important for teens to face the issue of domestic abuse head on, particularly because some already have witnessed it. In a survey she conducted of 300 local teens with whom she discussed the issue during the 2012-2013 school year, 25 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders and 45 percent of ninth- and 10th-graders said they know someone in a domestic-abuse relationship. That figure rises to 65 percent for students in grades 11 and 12.

As she packed toiletries, Morgan Rockmacher, 14, of Evesham, a Cherokee freshman, said she wanted to give back and welcomed the opportunities provided by the class. “So many people don’t have good lives, and I just want to help them,” she said.

Mount Laurel resident Jaden Paley, 14, a Lenape freshman, gave the course high marks. “I thought it was interesting and different. It’s about doing good things,” she said. “There’s a whole different world to see, and places I never knew existed.”

Marla Meyers, executive director of Samost JFCS, said her agency is proud of its partnership with Adath Emanu-El and Repairing the World.

“It seeks to inspire young people to see the world and their Jewish identity through a lens of communal conscientiousness. By bringing concepts found within Jewish values to life through a myriad of ‘experiences’ with people who are in need, the program truly allows the students to engage with their Jewish roots on a whole new level,” Meyers said.

“They learn empathy, understanding and the power of making difference,” she said. “In addition, we hope that this program will inspire the teens to make a lifelong commitment toward bringing social justice into their own lives – now as young adults and later as they become adults and leaders in the community.”

This article originally appeared in Burlington County Times; reprinted with permission.