At Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, many social action programs revolve around food. Congregants fill backpacks with healthy snacks for children in Middlesex County to take home over the winter holidays, when the need is especially acute. (Many children get breakfast and lunch served to them at school, so a family may need more food when school is closed.)
“We are passionate about the concept of tikkun olam, and we love for our children to learn about repairing the world and understand that it’s everybody’s responsibility to contribute,” said Iris Udasin, chair of the temple’s social action committee. Congregants also knit hats for cancer patients and grow vegetables at the community garden that are donated to the East Brunswick Senior Center.
As synagogues and other organizations look ahead to 5780, they are undertaking many projects to help the wider community, from collecting hygiene products and toys for victims of domestic violence to providing assistance and friendship to immigrants and refugees.
Assistance to immigrant communities is a central element of social action at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. A new program will bring together teens from the synagogue with teens who are immigrants and refugees through Casa Esperanza, a nonprofit in Bound Brook. Social outings to parks and baseball games are planned. Another program through the synagogue provides furnishings for apartments for newly arrived refugees.
A program in the planning stages for the coming year will have congregants helping the Puerto Rican Action Board, based in New Brunswick, to combat wage theft, when an employer withholds a paycheck from a worker, typically one who is an immigrant. Congregants will call employers and tell them attorneys will be brought into the matter unless the employee is paid immediately. “Usually all it takes is a phone call,” said Rabbi Philip Bazeley, who explained that the project is guided by the teachings of the Torah.
“We protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and right now we’re seeing that immigrant communities are the most vulnerable in society and don’t have anyone to advocate for them.”
Other ongoing programs at Anshe Emeth include offering shelter to homeless men for three weeks each winter and legal advice and loans of car seats and medical equipment to low-income families through the Anshe Emeth Community Development Corporation, a program that aids the working poor and others.
Teens can find a host of volunteering opportunities through J-SERVE, the International Day of Jewish Teen Service, which involves thousands of students from around the globe.
At the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, the event is run entirely by teens who plan, organize, and lead the program and the volunteer projects. Last year, more than 150 middle and high school students visited assisted living facilities, made blankets for children who live in shelters, and designed challah and matzah covers for Meals on Wheels recipients. J-SERVE, to be held March 29, 2020, is open to all community members.
Families with young children can help make the world a better place through PJ Library’s Mighty Mitzvah Makers, a program for children 3-11. Projects in the coming year will include visiting assisted living facilities and making pet toys to donate to animal shelters.
The Haimesha Helpers at Marlboro Jewish Center come to the aid of congregants and local families who need an extra hand with tasks around the house, such as moving refuse to the curb and changing batteries in smoke detectors.
“Sometimes there’s a pride issue, and people don’t want to ask for help,” said men’s club president Alan Greenberg, who started the program. “Sometimes an older person will just say, ‘I’ll wait for my son to visit’ to change a light bulb. But we’re happy to do it.”
Food drives and book drives are also planned for the coming year, as well as volunteer outings to a local soup kitchen.
“I think most congregants would like to do something, but they sometimes don’t know where to go,” said Dara Winston, Marlboro Jewish Center’s executive director, adding that this is why the synagogue incorporates social action into its calendar.
Hebrew school students at Congregation Ahavat Olam in Howell are collecting food for the hungry. “Many people don’t realize there are Jewish families who are struggling right in our area, and particularly around the holidays,” said Debby Milboer, the synagogue’s president. Congregants also deliver food to assisted living facilities and visit residents. In the works is a program to provide rides to synagogue for home-bound seniors.
Interfaith initiatives are an important part of social action at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, where families have regular dinners with Muslim families to get better acquainted and develop an appreciation for the other’s religion and culture. Last year, the synagogue began the Teen Interfaith Thanksgiving Day Dinner Drive when youth groups from churches, mosques, and synagogues in Edison and Metuchen mingle and assemble Thanksgiving food deliveries for adults with disabilities. Congregants also participate in the annual Sam Liss Memorial 5K, in honor of a young member of the synagogue who died in 2017. The race, which takes place this year Oct. 27, raises money for eradicating child slavery in Ghana, a cause that was important to Liss.
In October, during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick collects feminine hygiene items for residents of a women’s shelter. Throughout the year, congregants clean up a stretch of Route 1 for the Adopt-a-Highway program. And its Chesed for Chanukah program delivers care packages to first responders on Christmas. The Help A Needy Family for the Holidays program, which has run for more than 15 years, assists poor families in New Brunswick. Congregants buy items on the families’ wish lists, which are delivered with a holiday card from the synagogue. About 50 B’nai Tikvah families participate.
The program has donated mattresses, winter coats, snow boots, and toys. Janice Baer, who leads the project, said, “Congregants look forward to doing something directly for families in need.”