Some youth groups gather for bowling and pizza. Many participate in study sessions. And almost all do some sort of community service.
And then there are the teens of SALTY — Shore Area Long Branch Temple Youth at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon. Each year its members go the extra mile, quite literally, to perform an act of tikun olam.
On Jan. 22, 22 high school students from the temple and 10 chaperones boarded a bus to Jackson Heights, Queens. There they joined community activist Jorge Munoz under the tracks of an elevated train, handing out food and clothing to more than 150 impoverished people.
The Queens trip was Beth Miriam’s third annual “Midnight Run” to help the needy of New York City. In prior years the group distributed coats and clothing at Penn Station, the public library, and anywhere they saw people in need. Typically, they return home by 2 a.m.
“It’s a very late night, but it’s ingrained into the culture of the temple that this is what we do,” said Beth Miriam youth director Dee Ross. “When there’s a line of 50 people on the street waiting for help, you can’t just say, ‘It’s time to get back on the bus and go home to bed.’”
This year the students brought with them and distributed 300 winter coats, 200 pairs of new shoes and boots — donated by the Israeli firm Naot — in addition to a trove of socks, underwear, sweatpants, and hygiene kits, all collected by temple members.
Munoz, a school bus driver, was a 2009 “CNN hero” and was honored last summer by President Obama with the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, for serving up to 150 home-cooked meals to the needy every night for the last six years. When his “Angel in Queens” operation caught Ross’s eye, she contacted him via Facebook and arranged for the teens to join him and distribute the clothing and items they had collected to Munoz’s “clients” as he served them from the back of his pick-up truck.
“I am very happy this group of teens from New Jersey could join me,” Munoz told NJJN prior to the event. “I need all the help I can get. It’s a good opportunity to let kids know there are people out there in need of help.”
‘Making a difference’
Munoz, 46, prepares the food with his mother in their home. He funds the effort himself and through donations. “When I see these guys on the street, it’s like seeing me, 20-something years ago when I came to this country from Colombia,” he said. “I am so lucky to have everything I need, and my mother always taught us to share whatever we have.”
Students studied key words and phrases in Spanish, to be able to communicate better with the largely Hispanic population that frequents Munoz’s mobile kitchen. “Instead of just dropping coats into a bin, they are handing them to people who really need them, conversing with them, and experiencing compassion first-hand,” Ross said.
When Ross and some of the participants checked in by phone with NJJN around 11 p.m. from Munoz’s station, the temperature had dipped below 20 degrees.
“The kids are not completely comfortable, but that’s part of the eye-opening experience,” Ross said, as a train rumbled overhead. “It has been such a grounding experience working alongside Jorge. Plans are under way for us to collaborate with him once a month on Sunday mornings when he gives out home-cooked breakfast.”
The Beth Miriam teens said they were inspired by Munoz’s tireless effort.
“We are helping just one night; he does it every night, which I think is amazing,” said Maxx McClelland, 16, of Wall Township, SALTY’s social action vice president. “I am at a loss for words to describe how gratifying it is to hand bags of clothing to people who really need it.”
SALTY’s social action logistics chair, Bryce Peckman, 14, also of Wall Township, oversaw the clothing collection and sorting process in the months leading to the event.
“I didn’t expect this to feel as good as it does,” Bryce told NJJN as she handed out items of clothing. “It’s freezing outside, but I couldn’t care less. If we had enough things to hand out to the whole world, I would. It feels awesome to see them smile with so much gratitude.”