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The Circle of Mitzvot

The Circle of Mitzvot

By: Joanne Palmer
for The Jewish Standard/Times of Israel

It feels really good to be able to give.

That’s true for everyone, but it’s particularly true for people who often are given things. Giving back might be a cliché, but not everyone can do it.

That’s one of the reasons why the students who make up the Sinai School’s program at Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls were so happy to be able to create and run a drive to give snack packs to kids using the food pantry run by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey. JFCS is an agency of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and it was the federation that ran the program through which the girls made the packs.

Sinai’s students have a range of special needs; the girls at Maayanot, unlike their peers at Sinai’s school at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston (but like the Sinai boys at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck) are not likely to be mainstreamed into college.

It gave the girls a chance to develop and incorporate many of the academic and life skills that they’re taught. It gave them a chance to feel empowered — no, actually to be empowered — and to help others as others so often help them. It gave them a chance to connect with the community in the circle of giving and getting, providing and being provided with, that defines any living community.

And it also made them happy — and there is something about the happiness of a group of teenagers who don’t feel the need to cloak that happiness at being able to give with the sullen glower so typical of their more neurotypical peers. In this case, their relative lack of sophistication allows them a great deal of non-ironic pleasure in the chance to help others.

Devra Karger, JFNNJ’s director of principal gifts, with a Sinai student at the JFCS office.

The Sinai girls’ project began as part of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s March Mitzvah Madness; the federation adopted March 2019 as a “month-long community-wide campaign devoted to doing good deeds.” Those good deeds included what the federation called pop-up mitzvah projects, one-off opportunities to, among other things, assemble kits of necessities for homeless or underprivileged families or children.

Ilana Picker is a head teacher at Sinai at Maayanot; when she was asked to run a pop-up mitzvah day program at her own shul, she said yes enthusiastically. Then, when she thought about it more, she realized that “our Sinai students also can do this.”

And it wasn’t only that they could do a few rote tasks for someone else’s project. Instead, they could run their own. Its scale, schedule, and simplicity made it possible. It would fit in perfectly with the school’s educational model.

“I wanted to let our Sinai students become the drivers of the project,” Ms. Picker said.

Once she and the school’s director, Sima Kelner, agreed to try a pop-up project, “the girls had to decide what we were going to do and to decide how to get the word out about it,” Ms. Picker continued. “We knew that we were going to put together snack packs. We knew it was for children who needed snacks for the weekend, for children whose parents couldn’t afford it, so we had to make sure that the snacks were healthy. So we brainstormed what we could collect, and we started to work.

“The items weren’t random. They had to be healthy, and to fit in a zip-lock gallon bag.

“Each student had her own focus. Some decorated the four boxes we used for the collection. Some emailed their lunch buddies” — Sinai at Maayanot students are paired with Maayanot students, and relationships between them develop and are nurtured. “We decided that in a two-week period, we were going to collect the four items we chose.”

The JFCS’ CEO, Susan Greenbaum, tells the Sinai students what her agency does.

The publicity campaign for the snack pack collection at Maayanot demanded that some Sinai students speak about it publicly, by making announcements to the whole school, both in the morning and at lunch. “You have to plan and practice for that,” Ms. Picker said. “They have to practice speaking clearly and slowly. Nothing happens quickly with our students, and nothing happens easily. It takes a lot of rehearsing.”

Students also drew posters about the collection.

After the food was collected, the girls packed it, assembly-line style, using yet more of the skills that Sinai teaches them.

The lessons the girls learned from the program included “counting, sorting, chesed, and teamwork,” Ms. Picker said. “Also planning, initiating, and following through. Making the posters involved fine motor skills. Those are all skills we teach.”

Partway through the collection period, Devra Karger, the federation’s director of principal gifts, came to talk to the girls, to explain where the snacks would go, and to answer the girls’ questions.

“She was so lovely, and she had such a real connection with the girls,” Ms. Picker said. “One of the girls asked her if they could deliver the bags, and her response was, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”

The girls emailed thank you notes to her. “Emailing is not an easy task for our students,” Ms. Picker said. “Even before you start, it’s opening your computer, remembering your password. It takes a lot of planning and motor skills. It’s hard both physically and cognitively, and it’s very time consuming.” When they were done, though, the girls had written emails that displayed their work, and their pride in that work.

Sinai at Ma’ayanot’s director, Sima Kelner, helps a student read a JFCS brochure.

“After our students, who usually are on the receiving end, were able to feel that they were givers, they were saying, ‘Hey, we can do things that serve the community.’ And Devra wrote back to each student, thanking them.

“And then Devra wrote back to me, saying that we could deliver the snacks to the food pantry at JFCS. And when I told the students, they were over the moon.”

Part of that was joy because they could see where the work of their hands was going next. Another part of it was meeting Ms. Karger, who told them that they’d see her again; she’d be at the food pantry. “Their world is small,” Ms. Picker said. “When a new person comes into it, it’s a huge deal.”

“Our students are very open to relationships,” Ms. Kelner said. “They could connect with her easily.”

“They are grateful, and what you see is what you get with our students,” Ms. Picker added. “They are not sophisticated enough to have an agenda.” Their joy shines through.

So the next step was going to JFCS’s Teaneck offices, where they also could ask questions about what would happen to the snack packs. “We had another brainstorming session,” Ms. Picker said. “Our students don’t do so well with improvising, and we want to eliminate as much stress as possible.” So the girls discussed the questions they would ask, and rehearsed asking them.

Last Thursday, the Maayanot girls, Ms. Kelner, Ms. Picker, and two other teachers took two vans across Teaneck to the JCFS’s offices. There, the girls met with Ms. Karger again, asked their questions, and then went to the food pantry.

“We like to keep things as concrete as possible,” Ms. Picker said. When the girls actually saw the food on the shelves in the pantry, it made sense. The food wasn’t going to some abstract place. It was going to this room, and then to real kids.

“One of the students read the labels and said, ‘Huh. Some of the people they serve here don’t keep kosher,’” Ms. Picker said. “Another asked if we could come and stock the shelves, and they said that would be wonderful, and that opens another door for us. Our students’ worlds are small, and we keep trying to use different angles to expand them.

“People say, oh our poor students, poor Sinai students, but we are able and we are smart enough and we have enough gumption and confidence and all those good things that we can use to make the world a better place,” Ms. Picker said. “It’s all about relationships and learning and being with new people and being out in the community. It just has so many components, and with this project, everything just came together.”

Devra Karger was greatly moved by the Sinai girls. She felt a very real connection with the girls when she first met them at school, and when she saw them again at JFCS she was astonished and deeply touched by their clearly very real joy at seeing her again. And then she got a “beautiful thank-you letter from Ilana,” she said. “I was just blown away. I have gotten many letters, but not like this one. And these young women are so amazing.

“Usually I bring people to see things like this, so they can see the impact of their gifts. But this was so very beautiful and special to me.” Although there was much enthusiastic participation in the pop-up programs, “nobody was into it the way these girls were into it,” she said. “And Sima and Ilana make everything come alive.

“It warms my heart that the girls were able to make a connection with the community. People with special needs often aren’t part of the community. These girls are.”

Susan Greenbaum is the CEO of the JFCS. She talked to the girls that morning as they listened to her intently. She found their reaction to the project moving but not surprising. She sees it often, in a wide range of people, she said. “That is what makes our work such a privilege. At the end of every day, we know that people’s lives have been improved in some significant way. And this interaction was what I like to call the circle of mitzvot — everybody doing something for somebody.

“Regardless of how vulnerable you are, there is always someone more vulnerable, or someone whose life you can affect in a positive way,” she continued. “We are blessed to be both the conveners and the observers of these circles of mitzvot all over the community.”

Click Here to see this article as it originally appeared in The Jewish Standard.