After some of the freshman had articulated their long-term goals — to play in the NBA, to get good grades, to go to college — the teacher asked the students to consider what might get in their way. “Can you think of an obstacle you might have?” he asked. “And what can we do to solve that?”
He might have offered their own situation as an example.
The students attend the M.E.T.S. Charter School in Newark, but for the first two weeks of high school, their permanent home on Sanford Avenue was under construction. So they took up temporary residence at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange for the first week, and the second at the JCC Camp Deeny Riback site in Flanders. The spaces were provided at no cost to the Newark school.
It was an unlikely partnership.
“It’s very interesting that it’s the Jewish Community Center that has welcomed us, and it’s so beautiful,” said Vice Principal Anthony Dilley on Aug. 30, their last day in West Orange. “And I think I know why — they understand us,” he said, suggesting that because of their history, Jews understand what it means to be without a home.
“There is no real word to describe how wonderful and incredible and outstretched their arms have been,” added Dilley, who lives in West Orange and whose two children attended the preschool at the JCC MetroWest.
“It’s an opportunity to open our doors to other fellows in need,” said Stuart Raynor, CEO of JCC MetroWest. As the facility has been helped in the past by area organizations such as the West Essex YMCA in Livingston and the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains, he noted, “Now we can pay it forward.”
Dr. Elizabeth Swinford, principal of M.E.T.S., said she was thrilled to have found a place for the first two weeks of school. But what happened when her kids came to the JCC exceeded her expectations.
“Just being here has been so powerful,” she said.
In just a few days, she noticed a change in attitude among the students. Some gestures were small, like kids who were holding doors open for senior citizens entering the building or juniors asking if they could volunteer to give back to the school. Others were more radical, such as students suddenly thinking differently about themselves. She pointed out that before coming to the JCC, many were behind in credits and didn’t care.
“There was no motivation for them to do better because they think that they are not worth it,” she said. “Their attitude was ‘I’m never going to have an opportunity.’” Most of the students are minorities from Newark with low socio-economic backgrounds, and, Swinford said, many have parents in jail. But being at the JCC, and simply getting out of Newark, caused a shift. “In just three days, a lot of these kids are saying, ‘What can I do to graduate?’ and ‘I think I can do this,’” she said. “And all that just comes from being in a different environment” where they don’t constantly see signs of poverty.
“Coming here has helped them view a whole group of people that doesn’t look like them, that has embraced them,” Swinford said.
And there was something else: In preparation for coming to the JCC, the school’s 280 students learned about the history of the Jewish community, and found they could relate to their story. And when they arrived and found that people cared about them, invited them to join their activities, welcomed them with a smile by name, the displaced students felt valued. That’s something that, according to Swinford, they are unaccustomed to.
Tiyanna Alexander, 16, is a junior from Irvington who wants to become a lawyer. She told NJJN that although she’s already a motivated student, being out of Newark gave her something to work toward.
“The scenery is different, and it gives you a different, I can say, outlook,” she said. “It just gives you that extra push to try to do what you can do to help you get to a place like this, to work here.”
She added, “You can do better for yourself than just staying in Newark.”
For Samantha Siegelheim, an education consultant who has been working with the school in special education since March, the JCC-M.E.T.S. match was a no-brainer. A member of Temple Micah in Lawrenceville and an active volunteer with the Jewish Federation of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Warren Counties, she was confident the JCC would help.
“We take care of each other. That’s what we do,” she said.
It didn’t hurt that the last week of August, between the close of summer camp and the opening of the school year, is the quietest for the JCC, and there were no scheduled plans for the Deeny Riback facility during the first week of September.
It also helped that Jeff Reiss, who taught at the charter school last year, has worked in the local Jewish community for years, at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and at Deeny Riback during the summer. At both places he coordinated busing, and now works full-time for Durham School Services, a bus company. He helped make the shidduch, or match, between the school and the JCC and coordinated their logistics.
On Friday morning at the end of the first week, the teens stepped off the busses and went inside. Fran, the receptionist, greeted them, just as she had every day that week, and inside the JCC’s theater, as breakfast was distributed, Vice Principal Dilley complimented their “excellent” behavior toward the host institution.
After breakfast, freshmen sat in one classroom and set their long-term goals. Next door, seniors discussed their post-graduation plans. Juniors brainstormed class mascots in the gym (teachers were not enthusiastic about an early frontrunner, the Sexy Cowboy). Sophomores participated in some ice breaker exercises in a conference room.
It may have been just another day at the JCC, but it was anything but business as usual for these high school students.
Swinford believes the impact was so great that she announced her hope to launch each school year at the JCC. “I think that this exposure will help, especially my ninth graders,” she said. “It’ll make a big difference.”
And if nothing else, the experience offered an object lesson in overcoming obstacles.