In room after room, scores of teens were busy making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for homeless shelters, dancing with adults with cerebral palsy, making posters to brighten someone’s day, and working with seniors to create terrariums.
The fourth annual event known as J-Serve drew over 275 teens from sixth through 12th grade and from across Morris, Essex, and Union counties to do mitzvot.
Many of the activities were carried out in the main building on the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, but some were at the Lester Senior Housing Community on the campus and at Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation.
“We worked so many months to make this happen,” said Leah Weiss, Jewish service learning coordinator at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, also on the Aidekman campus. The Partnership, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, coordinated the local version of the event — organized nationally by a partnership that includes Repair The World, Youth Service America, and Rock the Vote — with underwriting from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“The best feeling was seeing kids getting off the buses and walking in clusters into the building — that’s when we really started to feel the energy in the room and see the turnout,” Weiss said.
Some participants, like Noah Schramm, 13, of Randolph, came on their own. Although he has cerebral palsy, he came to offer service, not receive it. A member of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, Noah heard about the event and knew he wanted to help out, he said.
He quickly made friends with a group from Congregation Beth El in South Orange that included Talia Briant, Daniel Gerstein, and Sam Gomberg, all of Maplewood. “I try to give back whenever I can,” said Talia. She serves as a teen helper in her synagogue’s religious school and has volunteered in the past at Winchester Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Maplewood.
Other synagogues that sent groups were Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, and the Summit Jewish Community Center. Area chapters of Young Judaea, United Synagogue Youth, and BBYO all served as partners of the event and sent volunteers.
Weiss said she and her committee hoped to bring together as many youth organizations and synagogues as possible, and then to have them “join together and leave their affiliations behind.”
Every program was open to every participant. For the Rachel Coalition, which aids victims of domestic abuse, the teens made 250 baby baskets that would be available to mothers waiting in courtrooms and social workers’ offices. Over 1,200 sandwiches were delivered to the Market Street Mission, a homeless shelter and food pantry in Morristown, and to a homeless shelter in Hoboken.
The teens also took part in a session about how to confront bullying, a presentation by refugees from Darfur who told their stories of survival, and a Jewish educational program that ended the day.
“The service aspect only goes so far,” Weiss said. “We introduced some texts for reflection and discussion so participants could see the Jewish values that go along with their work.”