When Jessica Baer was a 12-year-old student at Fair Lawn’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School, around 2010, her father, Michael Baer, saw an ad in the Jewish Standard for an Areyvut mitzvah clown training program.
He was intrigued and asked Jessica if she was interested in the program. “I’ll do it if you do it,” she replied.
So the father and daughter completed the training program and started visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and schools for children with special needs and putting their new skills to use.
Mr. Baer thought that the program did wonders for Jessica. “She was a quiet, more reserved person,” he said. “And I just saw what mitzvah clowning did for her. She would take on this whole different persona of a mitzvah — it was just unbelievable.”
Looking back, Ms. Baer recognizes the impact the program had on her. “My once quiet self became outgoing, performing for residents of nursing homes and hospital patients,” she said. But it was the program’s impact on nursing home residents that she enjoyed most. “Nursing homes can be dull and quiet places,” she said. “But when a group of clowns comes in, it’s hard not to smile. Although a balloon might be a small piece of rubber, it can transform into a funny hat, a dog, or whatever you want it to be. Mitzvah clowns become a ray of light in the residents’ days and remind them that people care about them.”
Areyvut is the Bergenfield-based organization created by Daniel Rothner to involve young people in helping others. The organization develops and runs a variety of programs designed to give teens and their families opportunities to help, and at the same time teach the Jewish values of chesed and tikkun olam and motivate participants to become lifelong helpers.
This year, Areyvut is celebrating 20 years of engaging Jewish youth and teens and inspiring them to give back.
Ms. Baer continued mitzvah clowning while she was a student at Fair Lawn High School. She also spent a summer interning at Areyvut, where she created different programs and community outreach projects and had the opportunity to see the ins and outs of running a nonprofit organization.
Ms. Baer recently earned a master’s degree in child life, a field that uses developmentally appropriate explanations and helps children and their families cope with medical procedures and diagnoses through distraction and medical play. She credits her mitzvah clowning experience with putting her on the path to this career. Now a child life specialist intern at Hackensack University Medical Center, she finds that her mitzvah clowning skills come in handy. “A simple magic trick can help distract a patient during a painful medical procedure,” she said.
Mr. Baer’s mitzvah clowning experience, and his realization of the transformative effect it had on his daughter — “it really brought her out of her shell and it definitely helped her develop into the person she is now,” he said — led to his joining the Areyvut board. “Areyvut really changed our lives,” he said. “It’s an amazing organization. It spreads goodness throughout the world, and we need more of that in the world every day.
“Areyvut opens people’s eyes to ways they can help others,” he added. “Before a recent school vacation, Areyvut sent out an email detailing volunteer experiences in Panama because Panama was a popular vacation destination this year.”
Shira Hochberg of Teaneck also is an Areyvut board member. Her family started getting involved about eight years ago, when her five children ranged in age from 3 to 14. “The programs were a real opportunity for us as a family to engage in something with Jewish values,” she said. “Areyvut has really helped us infuse Jewish values into our family life.”
At first, the family participated together. “Daniel helped us organize a family mitzvah day,” Ms. Hochberg said. “He arranged for us to go to TVAC”— that’s the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps — “and wash the ambulances.
“And we had a blast,” she continued. “We soaked each other while we squirted and scrubbed the ambulances. It really infused chesed into something that could have been just a water fight in my backyard. It turned a water fight into something that was meaningful within the community.
“I think what Areyvut does is help create meaningful moments, and family life is built on moments. I don’t think I could have arranged this type of meaningful family experience on my own.”
As the Hochberg kids got older, they each found ways to get involved in Areyvut on their own. Ora and Miri served on Areyvut teen boards, and Joshua was a summer intern at the organization. Aliza, whom Ms. Hochberg described as the family’s “resident artist,” will not miss an opportunity to participate in an Areyvut chesed crafting program. A recent event involved creating tissue paper flowers that were distributed to residents in a local assisted living facility.
Ora and Miri also have helped supervise Areyvut’s annual erev Yom Kippur mitzvah fair. The fair gives participating children the opportunity to choose among different projects — options have included such projects as creating sukkah decorations, writing cards to soldiers, and repurposing old T-shirts into dog toys and donating the toys to a dog shelter. “The mitzvah fair is a good way to start off Yom Kippur,” Ms. Hochberg said. “It creates an opportunity to impress upon participants that we need to be thinking outside ourselves.”
Eli is a fellow in Areyvut’s “Better Together” program, which combines visits to a local nursing home with discussions on how to engage with older adults effectively, respectfully, and meaningfully. “We as a family can visit a nursing home, but this program is a way to take it to the next level, to really organize and formulate visits in a way that my son can walk away with a skill, with a knowledge base, with confidence,” Ms. Hochberg said.
Even as her kids have started getting involved on their own, Ms. Hochberg continues to find that Areyvut helps create meaningful family moments. For example, as part of the Billy’s BASEballs initiative, Areyvut gave the family baseballs and Sharpies to use to write messages to U.S. soldiers. “The project just gave us an opportunity to engage at our family Chanukah party in a different way,” she explained. “Areyvut has really helped us infuse the concepts of tzedaka and chesed and tikkun olam into the normal rhythm of our family’s life.”
The Hochbergs also use the table topics that Areyvut disseminates before holidays. “These are conversation starters, open-ended questions that can bring our Thanksgiving dinner or Rosh Hashanah meal with my parents or in-laws just to a different level,” Ms. Hochberg said. “Just to see my kids listen to how their grandparents reflect on their year, or talk about something they’d like to improve on, or something they’d like to learn more about — it creates these moments, these opportunities to engage differently. I really think my kids are able to hear their grandparents reflect in a way that wouldn’t happen in their normal course of conversation.
“We’re going to live our lives, we’re going to have grandparents over, and Areyvut helps us do that through a different lens, from another angle.”
Mr. Rothner, Areyvut’s founder and director, who lives in Teaneck, grew up in Chicago, in a family that was actively engaged in the community. He learned the importance of communal involvement by watching his parents and grandparents.
Mr. Rothner brought significant experience in the field of Jewish education to Areyvut. He began his career in the informal Jewish education area, working first at the Bnei Akiva youth movement and then at the International March of the Living. Next, he taught Judaic Studies at the middle schools at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns (better known as HAFTR) on Long Island, and the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan.
“As a teacher, I found that the chesed projects I coordinated often made more of an impact on the students than the regular classroom material,” Mr. Rothner said. “The programs were usually experiential in nature, and those types of programs really make Judaism relevant for students. We can talk about things and stress that they are important, but actually doing them is transformative.
“Experiential learning is more organic, and it’s what students are more likely to remember,” he continued. “As Richard Joel said when he led Hillel, ‘Jewish wow moments can last a lifetime.’ Giving Jewish youth and teens opportunities to engage in chesed, in service, in tikkun olam, leads to meaningful Jewish experiences, to wow moments.
“As a teacher, I think I was able to have an impact on my students, but I thought I could have an impact on many more people by focusing on the wow moments.”
So Mr. Rothner launched Areyvut in the fall of 2002.
Areyvut’s experiential programming tends to fall into three broad categories, Mr. Rothner explained — gateway programs, family programs, and ongoing programs.
Gateway programs expose participants to a variety of projects or organizations with the goal of igniting lifelong passions — like the Bnei Mitzvah Chesed Fair, where Areyvut brings together representatives of organizations where bar and bat mitzvah students can create a mitzvah project.
Family programs are one-time chesed activities in which families can engage together. This category includes such opportunities as visiting a nursing home, stocking shelves in a food pantry, and creating crafts to be distributed to nursing home residents.
“These types of programs tend to be particularly meaningful because, in addition to benefiting the recipients and instilling values in the participants, they tend to facilitate meaningful conversations within families about why the activities are important,” Mr. Rothner explained. “And these conversations can be priceless because there are not many moments when parents have the opportunity to live their values with their children.”
Ongoing programs involve many meetings that tend to run during a school semester or a summer. These are programs like Mitzvah Clowning, Better Together, the Summer Internship Program, and Teen Philanthropy Board — a program in which participants learn about philanthropy and charitable giving, discuss charitable priorities, and allocate a small sum of money to one or more charities. “These types of programs are my favorites because they are capacity-building,” Mr. Rothner said. “They teach skills that participants can utilize in the future and incorporate into who they are.”
Areyvut also develops and disseminates resources that are designed to get people thinking about ways to be kind or ways to just brighten someone else’s day. Its Kindness a Day Calendar is now linked to an online Jewish calendar and was downloaded over 37,000 times last year. And Areyvut creates and disseminates resources designed to facilitate meaningful interactions, like table topics. “These online resources expand Areyvut’s reach exponentially because their reach is not limited by geography,” Mr. Rothner said.