Yavneh students get lesson in chesed at homeless shelter
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Yavneh students get lesson in chesed at homeless shelter

Visit challenges seventh-graders' perceptions of the homeless

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Yavneh Academy seventh-graders Zachary Abraham, Zack Metzman, Shira Golubtchik, Ezra Zinberg, Chana Fisch, Sydnee Anderson, and Abby Raykher were among some 60 students who visited the Housing, Health and Human Services Center in Hackensack last month for a lesson in empathy. courtesy yavneh academy

The seventh-grade class at Yavneh Academy got a firsthand glimpse into the lives of the homeless last week when it visited a Hackensack shelter for a lesson in empathy.

The visit to the Housing, Health and Human Services Center, which provides housing, meals, and health, financial, and educational services for the homeless, was part of the school’s Advisory program, a weekly class that focuses on such issues as self-esteem and communications skills. This year, said Aliza Frohlich, Yavneh’s middle school director of guidance, the school wanted to center the program on learning skills to help the community, and the administration chose to focus on empathy.

“People lacking empathy are the ones having a hard time maintaining relationships,” Frohlich said. “We really feel that the best way to target bullying in schools is to work on this skill of empathy. Bullies lack empathy; that’s why they’re bullies.”

For most of the students, homelessness is something that happens to other people, outside of the Jewish community, Frohlich said. The shelter’s director, Julia Orlando, visited Yavneh in October to give the students an introduction to the center, and the students spent November learning about the shelter, who becomes homeless, and the role economics plays in becoming homeless. The visit to the center, two days before Thanksgiving, “de-stigmatized” homeless people for the students and showed them that the homeless are real people, Frohlich said.

“When we got there, the most common comment was they look like regular people,” she said. “The key for us was to stress for the children that homeless people are not necessarily crazy or drug-addicted, and to understand there are hard-working people who just can’t make ends meet.”

While some 90 people live at the center, several hundred people a day stop by to shower, clean their clothes, and use the phone, Orlando told The Jewish Standard. Most children don’t understand that homelessness is a problem in their own communities, she said, and so Yavneh’s was a welcome visit, not just because of the warm clothing the children brought for residents. The center’s residents saw firsthand that there are people who care about them, Orlando said.

“A lot have lost contact with their families and children, so [the visiting children] bring a little bit of joy and hope,” she said. “It was a lovely sentiment for them to come. The message was that there are people out there that do care and send good wishes.”

Part of the center’s role, Orlando said, is to help people in need before they become homeless, and early education is necessary to do that. This was the first school-wide effort to engage with Housing, Health and Human Services Center, Orlando said.

“This economy is changing who becomes homeless. There are people coming in because of purely economic reasons,” she said. “When they’re in trouble, people are embarrassed. They’re ashamed, and when they come to us they’re days away from becoming homeless. We can do a lot if we know [earlier].”

A week after the trip, 12-year-old Sara Edelman of Teaneck looked forward to collecting more items for the homeless, as well as learning more about how to get people out of homeless shelters.

“A lot of people in school take for granted what they have,” she said. “It really made you appreciate what you have.”

For 12-year-old Chana Fisch, also of Teaneck, the trip sparked a desire to do more.

“It opens your eyes,” she said of the visit. “We’re going to do so much chesed throughout the year, it doesn’t just stop here.”

While the seventh-graders are moving on to another area of study in the Advisory program, not all the students are ready to end their work with the shelter. Madeline Plotnick and Dena Winchester, both 12-year-olds from Fair Lawn, co-chair a committee to create decorations for the center.

“They all seem like very nice people, and I’d like to go back there and see them again,” Madeline said.

The unit gave the students a participatory lesson in tzedakah that they might not otherwise have gotten, said Rabbi Aron Srolovitz, Yavneh’s chesed coordinator. While the children see people on a regular basis come to shul asking for tzedakah, they usually don’t get to have a direct impact themselves. The trip also challenged students’ assumptions about the homeless, he said.

“They assumed most people who were homeless had drug issues,” he said. “To see that these are actual hardworking people on the path to recovery – it was inspiring for them to see that these are serious people who are not so different from them.”

“It was wonderful that they reached out to us,” Orlando said. “We need the schools to reach out to us and know that we will come [speak to] them. We’ll always take the time out of our day to come and meet with kids.”

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