Kids Who Care
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Kids Who Care

Emanuel’s bnai mitzvah program structures its outreach efforts

Daniel Fuchs prepares for his bar mitzvah as his mother, Amy, looks on.
Daniel Fuchs prepares for his bar mitzvah as his mother, Amy, looks on.

“Mitzvah projects,” which often involve collecting items or cash for a worthy cause, are a typical way for children to mark their bar or bat mitzvah.

Bnai mitzvah students at the religious school at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake are welcome to take up collections as well, but the primary focus there is volunteering in the local community through a structured program, Kids Who Care.

Each student commits to spending at least 20 hours of supervised work helping the elderly, the sick, mourners, children with special needs, homeless children, abandoned animals, or the environment, for example.

Daniel Fuchs, 12, a seventh-grader at Cavallini Middle School in Upper Saddle River, chose to be a buddy to an 8-year-old autistic boy as his Kids Who Care project this year. Since September 18, he has been visiting the child at his house every other week for an hour.

“We usually play games and do things in his backyard,” Daniel said. “I am learning how to hang out with him, be responsible, and be the bigger person who takes control.”

Daniel’s mother, Amy, said there are valuable lessons to be gained from the experience. “I am hoping that Daniel will be able to see how others face adversity,” she said. “I am also hoping that he gains perspective and learns to deepen his empathy towards others with different learning needs.

“I feel that this hands-on experience will allow Daniel to engage with others on a deeper and more spiritual level.”

Kids Who Care is geared to instilling pre-teens with a lifelong commitment to the Jewish values of justice and compassion, according to Emanuel’s director of congregational education, Rabbi Shelley Kniaz.

Each of the students researches and chooses a direct service project through partner agencies such as the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, the Jewish Home Family in Rockleigh, and Jewish Family Service of North Jersey.

Once their proposal is approved by the school, students fulfill their service under the guidance of Kids Who Care adviser Andrea Kent — a senior in high school now in her third year volunteering in this role — and afterward prepare a speech about the experience to deliver during a bar/bat mitzvah Shabbat service. They also write an essay reflecting on their project and submit an evaluation from the adult supervising their project on site.

Melissa Reifman of Upper Saddle River, now also a Cavallini seventh-grader, spent her 20 hours last year assisting in the children’s room of the local public library. She found plenty of activities to help with, including a card-making project and a harvest festival.

As an avid reader, she said, “I felt it was a really good experience to give back to a place that has meant so much to me over the years, making a difference for the librarians and the kids. Getting to pick your project made the whole experience enjoyable.” This year, she is finishing Hebrew school and also helping out with the fourth-grade class at Temple Emanuel.

Kids Who Care, created originally by Rabbi Emeritus André Ungar with two parents, provides each child with a packet of information, forms, and supporting Jewish texts for family study.

Rabbi Kniaz said the synagogue has about 35 bnai mitzvah students this year. “We don’t require them to do this, but at least 90 percent of our kids do,” she said. “And a good portion of them continue their Kids Who Care project beyond the 20 hours, and tell us that it is a peak experience in their years at our school because it’s so hands-on and personal.”

Rabbi Kniaz notes that all the temple’s students are taught the true meaning of the word “mitzvah,” which literally means “commandment” rather than “good deed” as it is popularly understood. Many Jews do not realize that rituals are mitzvot no less than acts of chesed, usually translated as kindness or social action, she explained.

To reinforce this lesson, each year every grade studies and learns how to perform two age-appropriate “mitzvot bein adam l’Makom” (commandments between people and God, such as praying) and two “mitzvot bein adam l’chavero” (commandments between people, such as visiting the sick).

“By the time they have reached the middle of sixth grade they have experienced quite a few,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “They also learn those terms and can distinguish between the two categories of mitzvot while valuing both.”

Some other Kids Who Care projects the students have done recently include crafts with residents at a J-ADD group home for adults with developmental disabilities; planting gardens at a women’s shelter; serving as aides in the synagogue’s religious school; tutoring younger children after school and at a women’s shelter; serving food and playing with children at a homeless shelter; packing up Tomchei Shabbos meals and delivering them to needy families; visiting a Holocaust survivor; delivering Meals on Wheels and spending some time with the recipients; working with horses and clients at a therapeutic riding stable, and helping adults as they repair houses through Bonim Builders, a program of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

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