Sometimes a small synagogue community can make a huge impression on a teen. For 13-year-old Jaden Weiss, Bordentown’s 60-family Reconstructionist synagogue, Temple B’nai Abraham, has proved to be just such a place.
Inspired by the synagogue’s partnership with other houses of worship, Jaden created a food drive that has earned him accolades from state nonprofits and, more importantly, the satisfaction of doing a mitzva for others.
Once a month, Jaden helps prepare and deliver food to homeless people as part of the synagogue’s interfaith partnership with HomeFront and the Friends Meeting House in Crosswicks. The deliveries have become part and parcel of his experience as a Jew.
“The first Thursday of every month, me, my mom, and a couple of other temple congregants go to the motel, a transitional home, to give them food,” said Jaden, the son of Debby and Charlie Weiss of Robbinsville. “I’m hoping for the best for them and being thankful for what I already have.”
The people receiving the food, said Jaden, “are really grateful, and say things like ‘God bless you.’”
His mother offered some context. “When we started doing food delivery, I think he was very surprised to see families that looked like ours. There was nothing that screamed ‘needy’; they were just regular people down on their luck. At any moment anyone could be in need,” Debby Weiss said her son discovered, “and any help is worthwhile.”
So last autumn, when it came time for Jaden to do a community service project in conjunction with his January 2013 bar mitzva, it wasn’t hard for him to decide. “I did a food drive because I had already been doing it,” he said.
Jaden got in touch with Brian Peterson, community resource liaison at the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, who urged him to collect “really healthy” canned foods high in protein like sardines, chicken, and tuna, among the least donated products.
Peterson gave Jaden a tour of the food bank and explained that a big portion of what they distribute goes to children. “When Brian was describing how children a lot of time will go to school and be hungry and then not be able to do well in school, and that when schools go on break, there is also a big need, Jaden felt a kind of kinship,” said his mother.
Jaden’s food drive ran through October. After coordinating with principal Paul Gizzo, Jaden put a big bucket in front of Pond Road Middle School. He made announcements in his classes and e-mailed teachers about the drive, which was also announced after the morning pledge of allegiance and posted daily as part of the PowerPoint that runs through lunch.
“We had the whole school involved,” said Jaden. “We got 61 pounds in the end and brought it to the food bank in the back of my dad’s car.”
Along with other post-b’nei mitzva teens, Jaden also volunteers at the religious school at B’nai Abraham, where his father is president. Explaining that the school functions as a kind of “one-room schoolhouse,” Jaden said, “The older students from the synagogue volunteer to teach some of the younger classes. We teach them to read and sing prayers so that when the time comes for their bar mitzva, they can pretty much lead an entire Shabbat service.”
His father attributes much of Jaden’s “spirituality, his sense of community, and his enlightened understanding of the world around him” from the B’nai Abraham education and culture, which offer a “progressive balance of tradition and knowledge. We’re very proud of Jaden and all that he’s accomplished,” said Charlie Weiss, adding that Jaden has demonstrated “tremendous initiative and profound empathy on behalf of others less fortunate than he.”
B’nai Abraham’s Rabbi Julie Pfau is also proud. “Jaden has internalized in the best possible way the lessons that his parents and his B’nai Abraham community would hope to instill in our children — a compassion for others and a commitment to better the world that is integrated with their Jewish identity,” she said.
Coincidentally, while Jaden’s project was going on, Mercer Street Friends was part of Students Change Hunger, a statewide competition sponsored by the NJ Federation of Food Banks. Peterson entered Jaden as a representative of his school. His project won a Division Spirit Award in the category of schools of the same size, an Overall Spirit Champion Award in competition with other Mercer County schools, and placed sixth statewide for the Governor’s Cup Award for outstanding efforts to end hunger. The competition collected 13,068 pounds of food, donated by 14 participating schools, including Jaden’s.
Peterson also invited Jaden to compete for Molina Medicaid Solutions’ Community Champions Awards. He was recognized as a Community Champion on May 2 at Mercer County Community College and given a $1,000 grant that he could donate to a deserving nonprofit; he chose Mercer Street Friends Food Bank.