Chesed, often translated as lovingkindness, is a central Jewish ethic. It is doing for others without expecting anything in return.
While most Jewish high schools require a certain amount of “chesed hours” to set students on the proper path, the Moriah School of Englewood, which runs from nursery through middle school, has instituted a similar mandate for its 250 sixth- to eighth-graders.
“For the first time, we are requiring each of our middle-school students to do 30 hours of Torah learning and chesed in any combination, outside of school,” said Rabbi Yoni Fein, the Moriah administrator who co-directs the new Chesed/Talmud Torah Program with Rabbi Eitan Lipstein and Moriah parents including Judith Goldsmith of Englewood.
“We partnered with 20 organizations and created a chesed board at school where kids can sign up for the posted opportunities,” Rabbi Fein said. “We do that also for learning opportunities in the community. We’ve logged over 1,300 combined hours in the first six weeks and raised thousands of dollars for organizations including Table to Table, Friends of the IDF, and Sharsheret through chesed activities.”
He explained that this initiative is a large part of the school’s new Rebbetzin Peggy Weiss and Rabbi Joel David Balk Fellowship for Jewish Life, created through a private donation and earmarked toward creating an environment of experiential education in and out of school. A “spirituality assessment” helped them determine how these dollars should be allocated.
“The biggest initiative to come out of this assessment is the importance of our students knowing that being a Jew means putting Torah and chesed as a value and pillar in life,” Rabbi Fein said.
“We define chesed not only in terms of big activities, but also any action where you sacrifice your time or needs for someone else, like babysitting your siblings or volunteering to lead prayers,” he added.
“We wanted a way to get kids involved and develop a lifelong devotion to volunteerism,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “It’s not easy to find activities appropriate for kids under 16, so they can log hours even for things like walking an elderly neighbor to shul. It’s spurred a real spirit of volunteerism in the school. The slots on the chesed board fill up immediately.”
Doing something because you must, not because you want to, does not always engender a positive attitude. Yet several children interviewed said the mandatory experience has led to a genuine interest in volunteering.
Ms. Goldsmith’s seventh-grade daughter, Bella, admits that she probably wouldn’t have started volunteering in the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ special-education nursery every Sunday if not for the new school rule. But she likes helping the 4- and 5-year-olds so much that she plans to continue beyond the 30-hour requirement.
“I love my volunteering and I love the kids,” she said. “I have gotten so much out of this experience, because I feel like I am a better person and I don’t only think of my needs, but now look to help others.”
Jake Nussbaum, a seventh-grader from Teaneck, packs food for needy families through the Tomchei Shabbos program and also does babysitting. “I wouldn’t have done it at the beginning if not for the new chesed program at Moriah,” he said. “But now I would still do it because it’s a good feeling knowing you’re doing such a big mitzvah. Now I always try to do chesed whenever I can, and I am more aware of opportunities to help others than I was before.”
Ms. Goldsmith said that many of the kids have expressed a desire to continue beyond their obligated 30 hours for the year. “That is the goal: to show kids how easy and rewarding it is to volunteer,” she said.
Each month, the middle-schoolers receive chesed forms on which they record what they did and for how many hours they did it. This tally is validated by a supervising adult. “I enter the information into our overall spreadsheet and post the numbers by grade,” Rabbi Fein said. “At the end of the year, any student who has over 45 hours will be invited to a special dinner with their parents.”
Rabbi Fein noted that Moriah also asks each family to devote 10 hours throughout the year to school functions. “In addition, we’ve tried to provide more family experiences in Judaism, such as a family mishmar series every month,” he said.
Mishmar is a tradition of learning Torah on Thursday evenings, Saturday nights, or Sunday mornings. In the past, relatively few students participated in the optional sessions, but now “we get close to 100 participants each time,” Rabbi Fein said.
Seventh-grader Gabrielle Green of Teaneck participates in the family mishmar, and volunteered to pack boxes of supplies for U.S. soldiers as well as for the pink challah braid-athon and sale that resulted in the generous donation to Sharsheret, a locally based organization that runs a variety of national programs in support of young Jewish women with breast cancer.
“I think the new program at Moriah is really great and special,” Gabrielle said. “I learned how it feels to be a part of Am Yisrael,” the nation of Israel. “We are one nation and we should always help someone else in need, no matter what the reward is. Every person needs to take care of one another, and the Moriah program is the perfect way to internalize that.”
Ben Small, a sixth-grader from Englewood, fulfills his hours by learning Torah on Saturday nights and running bingo games at Prospect Heights Care Center in Hackensack.
“At first I did it because I was required to, and all of my friends were doing things that I thought were interesting,” Ben said. “But now I see the smile on everybody’s faces when I do chesed, and how much of an impact I can make, and I am thankful for Moriah’s program for giving me that opportunity.”
Veteran Moriah middle-school teacher Rabbi Shlomo Eisenberger said that the program “has made a tremendous impact” not only on mishmar attendance and interpersonal interactions, but also on school spirit. “It’s just incredible to see that a program with a simple, yet strong, message has started an amazing movement here at Moriah.”
Rabbi Fein said the chesed program has qualified Moriah to be a WE School, referring to a program of the international charity WE that challenges young people to identify local and global issues that spark their passion and gives them the tools to take action. WE Schools provides educators and students with curriculum, educational resources, and actionable ideas to address pressing issues such as hunger, poverty, and lack of education in disadvantaged areas.
The students have learned that hunger and poverty exist even in affluent Bergen County. Dara Berger, a seventh-grader from Englewood, said that packing weekly boxes of pantry staples through Tomchei Shabbos has “made me realize how lucky I am that I have food, and how important it is to help others.”
Rabbi Fein related that one father told him he recently overheard his daughter and her friends discussing the various chesed and learning programs they participated in, comparing notes on how many hours they had fulfilled and how they fulfilled them.
“To me, that is an amazing achievement that students are getting excited about the chesed and Talmud Torah and that they are getting involved in and sharing that excitement with their friends,” he said.