Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County is offering a new way for b’nai mitzvah to beef up the mitzvah part of their celebration.

“A lot of families were calling,” said Andrea Fields, the initiative’s coordinator. “Kids often want to do chesed projects when they’re doing their b’nai mitzvah. While children have always been welcome to help pack and deliver meals together with their parents, we decided to make a formalized program to incorporate into their simcha.”

According to its mission statement, Tomchei Shabbos – which has provided Shabbat meals to needy Jewish families in Bergen County since 1990 – so far has distributed more than 650,000 meals to members of the community. Recipients, now about 200 per week, include single mothers, Russian immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed, the sick, and the disabled. Some families require only short-term help, while others require assistance for an extended period.

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Young volunteers Aliza Poloner and Eliana Skoczylas help pack boxes. Courtesy Tomchei Shabbos

Every family receives a package every week; a more extensive package is distributed on holidays. The Pesach package covers the families’ needs for eight days. The volunteer organization is headed by an executive board including Claire Strauss, Chani Schmutter, Lori Frank, Steve Gutlove, and Sara Walzman, all from Teaneck or Bergenfield.

Fields said that whether they donate a portion of their bar or bat mitzvah money to Tomchei Shabbos or they use the occasion of their celebration to pack up food, students will have diverse opportunities to contribute.

“If it’s around the chagim” – the holidays – “they can incorporate extra things in the food package,” she said. Indeed, one bat mitzvah girl who enlisted in the project will invite guests to pack honey and honey cake at her simcha, which will take place around Rosh Hashanah, while another will have attendees pack tea and a new fruit.

There are diverse opportunities to contribute, Fields said, noting that even if there is no holiday coinciding with a simcha, participants can add extra items to the packages distributed on a typical Shabbat.

“We usually give potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, chicken, grape juice, and challah,” she said, pointing out that b’nai mitzvah might want to provide candy or special fruits.

“Baskets never have tea, coffee, or exotic fruits besides apples, oranges, and bananas. I’d like to be able to package up something like chocolate.”

Shoshana Halpert of Teaneck, whose daughter Avigayil , a seventh-grader at Yeshivat Noam, has signed up for the project, said Avigayil is no stranger to Tomchei Shabbos.

Halpert – who, together with her son Ezra, continues to pack food for the organization once a week at her synagogue, B’nai Yeshurun – said she and Avigayil worked together as volunteers for more than a year.

“We therefore felt it would be nice to do a chesed project for her bat mitzvah in conjunction with Tomchei Shabbos,” she said. At Avigayil’s bat mitzvah party, guests will package tea and pomegranates to be included in the organization’s Rosh Hashanah package. The packages will be delivered to 180 families throughout Bergen County.

Fields pointed out that b’nai mitzvah who work on behalf of Tomchei Shabbos will receive a plaque “as a memento of what they’ve done. People need the food,” she said, describing the project as both useful and nice.

She noted that b’nai mitzvah might go out with their parents to buy the items they donate; they also can buy them through Tomchei Shabbat.

“They can assemble it at their bar or bat mitzvah and then bring it to packing night,” she said.

Fields is targeting all synagogues in the area, working primarily through email and congregational newsletters to alert students to the new program.

“Anyone outside the county can do it as well,” she said, though the food will be provided to Bergen County residents.

She said the project is a good fit for b’nai mitzvah.

“At your bar/bat mitzvah you become responsible for mitzvahs,” she said. “Here’s one way to start.”

For more information, call Andrea Fields at (973)-371-1771, ext. 411, or email her at ajbier@aol.com.