Isaac Feldman thought the solid white walls at Covenant House — a crisis center in Newark for homeless, runaway, and at-risk youth — were “dull and, no offense, kind of boring.”
He decided to do something about it. On May 22, the teenager from Mountain Lakes was at the center with a team of friends and family members to create a colorful mural depicting doves — the Covenant House symbol — in all stages of flight.
Isaac, a sophomore at Mountain Lakes High School, said he hopes the mural will inspire homeless teens there to “leave their feelings of despair behind and within its walls find a home.”
The project grew out of Isaac’s participation in the Diller Teen Fellows Program, an international leadership development program coordinated through Jewish federations and overseen locally by the Legow Family Israel Program Center at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The community service component, which is integral to the program, is under the direction of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, MetroWest’s Jewish education and identity-building agency.
The current Diller cohort of 19 area youth began its stint in September 2010 and will end in November.
Daphna Yizrael, youth shliha, or Israeli emissary, at the IPC, said all the Diller service projects are deeply rooted in Jewish values.
She said she always asks the teens, “What is your passion? If you need to repair something, what would be the venue? We have several conversations. Sometimes kids want to fix something in their immediate circle, like their school; but the question is always, what Jewish value is in the background?”
This year’s community service projects vary dramatically from teen to teen. Some of the other projects are: organizing a multi-cultural fund-raiser at a local high school to benefit a “Hand in Hand” school for Jewish and Arab children in Israel, heading a dance-athon committee to raise awareness and funds for Club JCC Special Needs Services, and assisting MetroWest’s “One Happy Camper” campaign and promoting Jewish summer camp.
In the case of Diller teen Aliza Caplan of Millburn, she realized how helpful it would be for nervous incoming high school freshmen to develop relationships with upperclassmen to ease their anxieties and answer questions. She relaunched a peer-based program partnering eighth-graders at Millburn Middle School together with juniors at Millburn High School.
For several evenings during the spring, they met together, building relationships “so the eighth-graders will feel more comfortable coming to high school,” said Aliza, herself a junior at the school.
The goal of the project, she said, is to “create the kind of community for these students like I have with Diller.”
Ari Bernstein, who loves science, decided that his service project would be to tutor students in chemistry.
He said he was disturbed to find out “that those who could afford expensive tutors were performing significantly better on these standardized tests than students who did not receive aid from a professional tutor,” said the Montclair resident. “With this unfair aspect of the college process, I went to both my guidance counselor and chemistry teacher.”
They helped him set up a tutoring service for the SAT Chemistry Subject Test. He has tutored four students at Montclair High School, where he is a junior. Ari said he is enjoying the tutoring so much that he plans to continue beyond this year, he told NJJN.
Community service is just part of the Diller approach to developing young leaders. Each cohort of local teens has an Israeli counterpart. For 14 months they follow identical curricula that explore Jewish identity, leadership, and Israel through workshops, Shabbaton weekend retreats, evening programs, and a three-week summer seminar in Israel. Members of the Israeli cohort stay with local participants during their spring visit to New Jersey.
Isaac, who is still putting the finishing touches on the mural, held a fund-raiser June 12 and, in total, he has raised just shy of $15,000 for Covenant House. He was introduced to the program by Temple Beth Shalom, where his family belongs and which has a relationship with the program.
He completed the mural with the help of professional artist Victoria Febrer. Asked what was Jewish about the project, he said, “Nothing. But these kids are in need, and it’s my job to help them.”