Chinese exchange student Shirley Zhang sat at a table at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, helping to weave a blanket to be donated to Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen in New Brunswick.
“It is a nice way to spend an afternoon helping other people,” said Shirley.
The 17-year-old worked with fellow Rutgers Prep exchange student Se Hyun Lin, 18, of Korea and Alex Ostrin¸ 13, of Highland Park, a student at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison.
All three volunteers took part April 19 in J-Serve, an “International Day of Jewish Youth Service” initiated by the Jewish social action group Repair the World.
The local event, open to Jewish and non-Jewish youth, was sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
Some 150 young people from diverse backgrounds and Jewish denominations, including young adults with special needs, gathered for several activities to help the local community. The township-sponsored East Brunswick Youth Council also sent a contingent of teens.
“The entire program was a reflection of Jewish values,” said Laura Safran, the federation’s director of community impact. “We are an inclusive, caring community, and for that reason it was important to include the entire community. We are very proud of our relationship with the rest of the community.”
Shirley said she heard about the program through the Jewish host family she is staying with while attending her Somerset school. She brought along her friend, Se Hyun, who said she was happy to lend a hand, adding, “It was fun to do it.”
The program drew young people from 37 synagogues and organizations. Young adults from Spectrum in Edison worked alongside those from Yachad, a federation partner that is affiliated with the Orthodox Union and serves young people with special needs from all denominations.
Teens prepared meals for Elijah’s Promise, made placemats for the West Point Military Academy Jewish Chapel and Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County’s Meals on Wheels program, and wrapped cutlery packs for Ronald McDonald House in New Brunswick.
Other teams bagged toiletry items and goodies for American military personnel stationed overseas for Home Front Hearts, a national organization founded by East Brunswick resident Randi Cairns with the help of a Bronfman Youth Fellow Alumni grant.
After receiving training, volunteers, including a handful of non-Jewish youngsters who chose it as their service project, made calls soliciting funds for the federation.
“They ran after me to train them so they could make calls and advocate for Israel and the Jewish community, and they were really good at it,” said Safran. “They got donations.”
Some teens went off-site to visit seniors at Sunrise of East Brunswick or the Chelsea East Brunswick assisted-living facilities. Others helped organize the crisis room at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
At Aldersgate, Ben Albertson of East Brunswick helped organize the food pantry and items for a yard sale. A student at Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean, Ben is also a member of the J-Team, a federation-sponsored program training teens to become philanthropists. “I want to give back to my community,” he said.
Gabrielle Benzillo, 17, came with a group from the local BBYO chapter to “help the community.”
“Sometimes people are not as fortunate as we are, so we need to give back,” said the East Brunswick High School student.