Irene Bolton, director of life-long learning at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, is surrounded by giraffes and giraffenalia, which may seem like a silly thing for a grown woman. But Irene Bolton is no ordinary woman, and there is a serious reason for all the long-necked funny-looking creatures that are ubiquitous in her office.
The giraffes are symbols of Beth Or’s mitzvah program, which runs from the early childhood class right to the top of the congregation. Why giraffes? Says, Bolton, "To help all of us remember to stick our necks out to make the world a better place in the world, in Israel, in the community, and in our congregation.
"The literature we developed for everyone explains how giraffes help us focus on Jewish values. Giraffes run very fast. We ask all our students to run fast to identify and participate in worthwhile tzedakah projects. Giraffes have big hearts they weigh about ‘5 pounds We need to have big hearts, compassion, and empathy to reach out to those in need. Giraffes, because of their height, see over the trees and far beyond, and we must see our way to remembering to bring tzedakah money to school each class session. We must see what is needed and do what is right."
Late last year, Bolton saw an article in The Jewish Standard about Chen, a little girl from a kibbutz in Israel who is suffering from a severe brain tumor. The article noted that Chen needed funding so that she could be brought to Houston, Texas, for treatment. In Israel, entertainer Dudu Topaz did a telethon and was able to raise enough for transportation, with an assist from El Al. The family has been in Houston for about six weeks, and Chen is being treated by a doctor at MD Anderson Hospital. Chen is under special treatment with physical therapy, chemotherapy, and experimental medicine. She is still not looking anything like her old self, and the prognosis is iffy. There are complications, and she may lose her hearing.
When Bolton read about Chen’s plight, she felt that helping Chen and her family would be a good mitzvah for the Giraffe project. "As educators, we also try to teach students, parents, and congregants to make a connection between prayer and acts of kindness, between tefillah and chesed. So at a tefillah session just before Chanukah, I asked the students if they would like to participate in the mitzvah of helping Chen by raising money and making get-well cards."
Two hundred and sixty five students went to work. They brought in the monies they raised and made the get-well cards. At the following Shabbat family service on Friday, before candlelighting, the congregation gathered in the lobby of the synagogue and members were invited to add their tzedakah to that of the children. Between them, they raised approximately $500.
Later that week, three fifth-graders Jennifer Smith, Erica Barish, and Samantha Kaufman told Bolton that they wanted to raise funds for Chen at their public school, Westridge Elementary School in Park Ridge.
She sent the girls back to the school principal, William Schmalz, with a copy of the Standard article and asked them to find out if the project would be appropriate. If the principal said yes, the girls were asked to keep a journal about the project and to create a giant poster about the project.
First they organized a "Lend a Hand/Support Chen" campaign, where students were asked to put their loose change into containers in their classrooms. They created a newsletter to describe Chen’s plight to let students know where their money was going to go.
On Dec. 19, they ran a bake sale at the school, with all proceeds going toward Chen’s treatment and to support her family. Together, the children raised $1,450 and sent it to Houston.
The girls understand that this is an ongoing project. Funds will still need to be raised and Chen is not out of the woods. They know she may not make it. But they feel they’ve helped her to have a fighting chance.
Jennifer said, "When we heard Morah [Bolton] in the sanctuary, I thought it might be a good project to take back to our public school. If it were me, I would want someone to care and help."
Erica noted that "we were learning about prophets in our religious school class and we learned that they heard and spoke-God’s words. I wanted to be like the prophets and tell people that God wants us to treat people fairly, to make peace and help others."
Samantha promised to continue the project. "We are going to write a thank-you note to our school and we’re not through yet!"
Chen’s family wants to thank everyone for their prayers and their help. Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, in Woodcliff Lake, is holding a fund-raising drive. For information, call (’01) 391-0801.