|Liron Karass, youth shlicha at Bergen YJCC, standing, goes over story that was recorded by Hebrew-speaking scouts from Fair Lawn. Charles Zusman|
Sunday was a day for feeling good and doing good, as some 1,500 volunteers fanned out in North Jersey for the annual Mitzvah Day coordinated by the UJA Federation of North Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council. The November morning’s chill was dispelled by the warmth of “mitzvah” activities at some 40 sites, bringing a smile to seniors, a helping hand to those with special needs, and an assist to nature and conservation groups.
To cite just a few of the mitzvot, youngsters dressed as clowns entertained seniors at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Teenagers gathered at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township to record a story, in Hebrew and English, for blind children in Israel and New York. Volunteers helped to put away canoes and kayaks for the winter for the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group.
“Mitzvah Day is a powerful event,” said Sari Gross, event chairwoman. “It gives people an opportunity to do good and bring joy to themselves and others.”
The event has come of age, so to speak, this being its b’nai mitzvah year. It began 13 years ago with some 300 volunteers and has grown five-fold, said Alice Blass, event coordinator. Other organizations have followed the North Jersey model, but not on the same scale, she said.
“There is something for everyone, including your friendly pet,” Blass said, noting that warm and fuzzy “therapy” animals are a hit with seniors.
Also, she said, the beneficiaries of Mitzvah Day are not necessarily Jewish.
The day had special significance for Vardit Cohen, 17, of Fair Lawn, one of a group of Israeli-born scouts called Tzofim doing the recording at the YJCC. She has a cousin who is blind, Vardit said. When a lot of people join together to do good deeds, the effect is multiplied, she added.
The book chosen for the reading was especially appropriate, said Liron Karass, youth shlicha (emissary) at the Bergen YJCC. “Bone Button Borscht” by Aubrey Davis is about a beggar who comes to a small town that has fallen on hard times. The beggar’s tall tale of how he can make soup out of buttons works to bring the townspeople together.
The scouts recorded the book in Hebrew, and that recording will be sent to a library in Netanya, Israel. The others recorded it in English, and it will be sent to New York.
The scouts taking part in the Hebrew reading were, besides Vardit, her twin sister Sarit, Bar Begev, Noa Moshe, Gal Shaya, and Liran Yarkoni. Volunteers recording the English version were Alex and Ben Weiss, Anya Gips, Jacqueline Gold, and Dara Liebeskind,
A similar program was held at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly with another group of Israeli scouts, Karass said.
At the Teaneck Jewish Center, Abby Steifel, 12, was brimming with brightness and color in her clown outfit. “It’s really fun to make people smile,” she said, and smile they did.
“Lovely, lovely,” said Yafa Weiss of Cliffside Park. “The kindness, the costumes,” she said, explaining that she has been coming to the program for five years.
Eli Szafranski, 12, of Teaneck, wore his clown outfit and makeup like a pro, even though he had just been trained. He deftly twisted a long balloon into the image of a dog, then pulled a marker from his pocket to draw the facial features.
The youngsters were trained by Areyvut, a program guiding youngsters in ways to help others. Its director, Daniel Rothner, also decked out in clown attire and facepaint, watched over his 12 young charges as they worked the room with smiles and chatter for the seniors.
“The goal is to get kids involved,” not just for the day, but on an ongoing basis, Rothner said. A clown outfit brings a smile to people’s faces, he said of the “Mitzvah Clowning” program.
The program in Teaneck is under the umbrella of the Center for Elder Adults at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and the UJA.
Earlier in the day in Secaucus, Dan and Laura Kirsch and Matt Holland joined other volunteers in helping to store the Hackensack Riverkeeper’s canoes and kayaks for the winter.
Hugh Corolla of the Riverkeeper staff explained that his group promotes clean water, and that goal is served by educating the public about the watershed and waterways.
By extension, therefore, Laura Kirsch said, helping the Riverkeeper contributes to the well-being of those living in the area. “It’s important in terms of ecology. They do a wonderful job,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Dan Kirsch, a kayaker himself, who said the Riverkeeper organization does “a wonderful job of education.” He is the chairman of the regional JCRC and his wife is on the UJA-NNJ board.
Holland, UJA-NNJ community purchasing manager, said, through teeth that weren’t quite chattering as a breeze blew off the river, “I am wearing seven layers…. We’re helping … do some good.”
As Corolla will affirm, you don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from a mitzvah.
“It’s such a success every year,” Gross said Monday, assessing the events of the day before. “You bring people together, and it’s a rich experience for the volunteers and recipients.”