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Building their legacy

Bonim makes sure those with special needs feel at home

While the Zoey Project is more ambitious than most of his group’s other jobs, “It’s not really a departure,” Mickey Levine, chair of Bonim Builders, said. “In this case, we’re just doing on a larger scale things we have always done.”

The project – begun in March and slated to finish in October – involves building a two-story addition to a small house in New Milford. Together with Bergen Habitat for Humanity, Bonim’s job is to help a family of five whose middle child, Zoey, suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound.

Bonim, a volunteer group, was founded in 2002 by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (then UJA-NNJ). It was created specifically to help families and people in need and it serves the entire community, including both Jews and non-Jews.

“The project is being done for the sole purpose of fixing the house so the child can be part of the family,” Levine said.

“This is a lovely young family,” Bonim’s coordinator, Stacey Orden, said, explaining that as it had existed, her family’s New Milford home was inadequate to meet Zoey’s needs. When Jacey Raimondo, executive director of Bergen Habitat, approached Bonim, looking for a partner on the project, “we joined forces,” Orden said.

“Without renovation, the family was sharing one small bathroom,” she continued. “We’re adding a handicap bathroom on the first floor for Zoey to use, and enlarging her bedroom so it can fit a hospital bed. We’re also adding a therapy room for daily exercises. We’ve had volunteer consultations with architects and occupational therapists who helped us and guided us to come up with a viable blueprint.”

Orden said that Bonim has partnered with many organizations. The Zoey Project, for example, “would have been impossible if either of us had attempted the project individually. But as a team we could get this done.”

Bonim is funded primarily by the federation but also receives both money and in-kind donations, such as building supplies, from private donors. The building group has no trouble attracting volunteers, Orden said, and has drawn helpers “in the thousands.”

“We welcome volunteers of all skill levels,” she said. “If someone is a novice, someone else will teach him a new skill.” While the age of volunteers varies depending on the project, in most cases Bonim accepts helpers who are 12 and older.

“Volunteers from all walks of life were drawn to [the Zoey] project,” Orden said, pointing out that architect Lisa Cohen “was very excited to be the primary architect on this job. She, an engineer, and an occupational therapist all donated their time.

Hands-on workers have come to New Milford from all over the community, including groups from Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, Temple Sinai in Tenafly, Congregation Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, the Frisch School in Paramus, engageNJ, Jersey Tribe, and Hillel.

Miriam Allenson, the federation’s director of marketing services, recalled that when Bonim first was established, Judy Beck, who then was director of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative, proposed finding diverse entry points into Jewish life. Bonim – providing a way for synagogues to bring members together “and give them a feel-good project” – was one such entry point.

“We’ve really taken off from that point,” Orden said. “We’ve attracted synagogues, youth groups, day schools, and unaffiliated individuals looking for a way to express their Judaism by performing mitzvot and doing tikkun olam.”

“It’s one thing to give money to an organization and know that it’s doing good. It’s another to be working on a project and see it come to fruition,” Levine said. He describes himself as “somewhat handy” and has been working with Bonim for the past 10 years.

“It’s always a two-way street. Not only are we helping families, but volunteers can see the result of their actions. We’ve grown over the years,” he added. “You have to grow to be successful.”

As Bonim’s workload increases, Levine said, “We hope to be able to better manage our volunteer corps.”

With the New Milford project taking so much time and needing so many volunteers – and Bonim having made commitments to other projects in August and September – the organization will have people working on several jobs at once.

Bonim receives direct applications for help as well as referrals from synagogues and such organizations as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Home at Home.

While its original mission was to perform critical repairs and renovations for low-income families in the federation’s catchment area, it also helps clients suffering from diseases that require home adjustments. In addition, the group helps other nonprofits who reach out to them for assistance.

For example, Orden said, her builders gave the JFS of North Jersey “a complete makeover” last year. They will tackle Children’s Aid and Family Services in Paramus in the fall.

Bonim does other things too.

“We put up sukkahs for families that are elderly or disabled so they can enjoy the holiday as they’re accustomed to,” Orden said. “We also help bar and bat mitzvah students fulfill their mitzvah requirements by doing projects with them.”

“We kill a lot of birds with one stone, helping families in need and helping people looking for a way to perform tikkun olam,” she said. “We provide a way for them to help.”

For more information, call Orden at (201) 820-3903 or email her at StaceyO@jfnnj.org.

Program year 2012: Highlights
Tackled accessibility issue at Temple Beth El in North Bergen, installing a portable ramp to facilitate sanctuary access for physically challenged congregants. Also replaced the entire ceiling and lighting fixtures for the aging synagogue’s youth lounge.

Renovated Family Promise’s new location in the lower level of the Ridgewood United Methodist Church. Also created a day center for the clients of Family Promise, who are homeless working families.

Partnered with Rebuilding Together of Bergen County and Sears Heroes at Home to renovate the Ridgewood home of a poverty-stricken single mother of five children whose middle son serves in the military.

Helped families in Teaneck and Oakland affected by Hurricane Irene. Emptied homes of their contents, salvaged what they could, and readied the buildings for water remediation.

Worked with the Jewish Home at Rockleigh’s newest program, the Jewish Home at Home, which aids seniors who wish to age in place and remain in their homes.

Hosted the bar mitzvah project of DD Naiman, whose family’s sponsorship of the project provided for a foyer floor replacement and installation of an exterior ramp for an elderly, wheelchair-bound retired Teaneck public school teacher.

Installed an emergency generator in the home of a Fair Lawn man whose wife suffers from a serious neurological disease and is restricted to a special medical air mattress atop a hospital bed. Frequent power outages had threatened her well-being.

Assisted a Rutherford woman suffering from mental illness by emptying her home of debris and installing smoke/CO detectors.

Helped eight area families build sukkot.

Launched a complete makeover of the Federation Apartments’ library room in Paterson

Partnered with Chai Lifeline to help a Teaneck family whose four children all suffer from some degree of muscular dystrophy. Installed an exterior ramp leading from the porch to the kitchen to enable the children to enter the house more easily.

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