Sophie Weinberg took a pink feathered fishing lure and pinned it to her shirt, promising to spread the word about helping breast cancer survivors.
Other young people made similar oaths, pledging to perform good deeds to help make the world a better place.
All were inspired by poet and educator Danny Siegel, a champion of grassroots philanthropy who is known as the “mitzva man.”
Siegel shared his Torah of giving with 100 teens and their parents at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, at a Feb. 3 program cosponsored by Temple Emanu-El in Edison and the Hagalil region of United Synagogue Youth.
“Imagine trying to change the life of a couple of people,” said Siegel, in a program that mixed Jewish lessons on charity with examples of small-scale philanthropy that can make a big difference.
The program was supported by the Barry Miller Fund at Neve Shalom and the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, now part of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
In addition to writing and teaching about charity, Siegel was the founder of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which until it closed in 2009 distributed more than $14 million in charitable funds.
Siegel, who is based in the Washington, DC, area, offered examples of the kind of projects it supported. They included brightly colored kipot made by Guatemalan-Mayan women and purses made from snack wrappers by Honduran women through Manos de Madres to support their families.
Supporting these small-scale businesses, said Siegel, fulfilled the highest level of tzedaka described by the medieval sage Maimonides: providing someone with the opportunity to earn a livelihood.
Siegel assured the young people they too could help make the world a better place through their own acts, however small, of gemilut hasadim, or acts of loving-kindness.
Siegel also suggested that the teens encourage their school’s dining services to donate their leftover food to the needy. He even offered to put anyone interested in touch with Syd Mandelbaum, a Long Island man who rescues leftover food and is part of Rock and Wrap it Up, an antipoverty think tank.
Hands shot into the air when he asked how many had old cell phones lying around. Local police or community domestic violence programs often accept such phones, since 911 calls will go through on any charged phone even if it is inactive.
Similarly, “gently used” stuffed animals and dolls can be given to police and fire departments and rescue squads to comfort young children. Synagogues can set up “mitzva cribs” to collect baby items.
“Every time I go to the store I buy an extra item,” said Siegel, which he donates to the hungry.
Josh Meisner, a 15-year-old from Edison, went with Emanu-El two weeks before on a Midnight Run, in which teens are taken at night to dispense food, drinks, and clothing items to the homeless in New York City.
“It was wonderful,” said Josh. “I did it because it was a mitzva. I really wanted to find a way to help my community and make it a better place.”
Eric Steinbach, 18, of Edison is affiliated with Neve Shalom. He heard Siegel speak twice before.
“Each time it’s a little bit different with different inspiring projects,” he said.
Sophie Weinberg agreed to distribute pamphlets about Casting for Recovery, a Vermont-based group that takes breast cancer survivors on therapeutic fly fishing retreats.
“I’m very interested in politics and women’s rights,” said the 14-year-old from Edison, who is affiliated with Emanu-El. She intends to “tell my friends about this organization that helps women.”