I connected Jewish learning with my identity while picking tomatoes last summer. It happened as I was working in the community garden of Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, one of 10 volunteer projects planned by JTEENGMW of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey.
During the summer Mitzvah Mania, teens engage in different volunteer projects over a two-week period across Greater MetroWest. The learning activities that occur at each event connect the projects to essential Jewish wisdom and perspectives on topics such as hunger, poverty, inclusion, environmentalism, and Jewish continuity. My involvement with summer Mitzvah Mania began by helping plan the events as an intern, and was capped by receiving the honorific of Master Mitzvah Maniac in 2017 for volunteering at eight of the 10 projects.
The spring Mitzvah Mania program launches this month with 10 teen-led programs that will take place through June. They’re planned and led by teams from Iris Teen Mitzvot, of which I am also a member; my team is planning three of the spring projects.
Little did I know how much I would gain from these hands-on, meaningful service projects when I signed up for my first Mitzvah Mania in the summer of 2016. This past summer was my second year participating in the program, and I noticed a change in myself from one year to the next. The first year I was shy and quiet, wanting to participate, but preferring not to interact with the other teens. But throughout the last school year, having become more involved in J-Serve and Iris Teen Tzedakah (two programs of JTEENGMW), my confidence grew, enough for me to decide I was ready to take on a leadership role.
I helped formulate the Mitzvah Mania calendar and developed the activities and Jewish texts to be included in the learning. Through this program I learned leadership skills, increased my empathy and awareness for those in need, and strengthened my ties to my local Jewish community.
Volunteering at the Wellness, Arts, Enrichment (WAE) center in West Orange, a program of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled, was a meaningful experience. Initially, I was hesitant to attend this event, having never worked with adults who have disabilities. However, when I got to the WAE center I was excited to meet and interact with their clients, and they were excited to be teaming up with us to help others. We worked together to design puzzles for children experiencing hardships, and through this activity I learned more about people with disabilities, and in turn was able to empower them to help others.
I developed friendships with the people around me, especially one client named Maria. She was deaf but she taught us to sign a variety of words so we could communicate with her. She also passed out a piece of paper so every teen could write their name on it so she could remember them. Another woman, Stef, drew hearts and smiley faces on every single one of the puzzles in the hope that the children we were giving them to would smile and enjoy them. Their enthusiasm was contagious and inspirational.
Through planning the Jewish learning for the community garden event, I researched halacha (Jewish law) on agriculture, and learned about how farmers must portion out food for impoverished individuals. It also showed me how I can help lead and engage the teens in the learning.
Through last spring’s Iris Teen Tzedakah program, I, along with other teen advisers, allocated funds to Jewish Family Service in order to help purchase a freezer, and this was the first time I saw it in use. That really made an impact on me because I felt that working through the federation programs resulted in something tangible.
Cooking dinner for residents at Homeless Solutions in Morristown, a temporary housing facility, made me realize not to take anything for granted and to have empathy for those living in challenging circumstances. The residents were so appreciative of the food we brought them, and they expressed their gratitude at being able to live at Homeless Solutions. After dinner I had the opportunity to play games with some of the children who live there, an interaction that they, and I, enjoyed.
During my final event, I helped sort the books in the library of Ahavas Sholom, the last operational synagogue in Newark. This unique event enabled me to understand the rich Jewish history of Newark. While sorting, we found many kinds of culturally significant books, from Yiddish primers to Hebrew bibles to secular literature on Jewish immigration. We also discovered personal artifacts — one was a grammar school graduation certificate from the 1920s that had belonged to a longtime congregant of the synagogue.
Each volunteer event gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills through Jewish learning, and to increase my awareness of those in need through personal interactions and connections. In addition, I was able to strengthen my bond with the Jewish community by learning about the history of the Jews in Newark as well as by looking toward the future, knowing my volunteerism can make an impact.
For information on Mitzvah Mania and JTEENGMW programs, contact Michael Strom, coordinator of Jewish Service Learning for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, at 973-929-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org.