Giving tzedakah is nothing new for the 4-year-olds at the David Rukin Early Childhood Center Nursery School at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township. According to school director Susan Suzzan, preschoolers have always brought in coins on Friday as part of the school’s pre-Shabbat program. But, said Suzzan, the Foster Families program "has taken giving to the next level."
From left, teacher Lisa Misuta and students Natalia Ratner, Tyler Ehrman, and Emily Char talk about tzedakah.
Said Suzzan, "We’re helping the children begin to understand the concept of tzedakah as well as the idea of ‘not having.’"
The program, through which the preschoolers "adopt" one or more local families in need, was created last year by nursery school parents, who then brought their idea to Jewish Family Service of Bergen County in Teaneck. JFS selects needy families and provides the school with a list of items the families require. The 4-year-olds shop with their parents to buy the supplies, bringing them to school once a month. Parent volunteers collect the donated materials and bring them to JFS.
While recipients remain anonymous, teachers are provided with biographical information to share with the children to "make it more real," said Suzzan. For example, the youngsters are told how many children live in each household and why the families need help.
"We’ve always had a tzedakah collection on Fridays and have done mitzvah projects, like a food drive during Pesach," said Suzzan. "But this is more concrete. It puts a face behind tzedakah. The children feel like helpers."
This year, the school’s three classes of 4-year-olds are helping one family, with each class responsible for a different category of items, whether food, cleaning products, or toiletries, said Suzzan. The director added that not only are the children benefiting from the program, but "the teachers feel good about their participation as well."
Parent Nancy Goldman, who helped create the Foster Families program together with Tara Merson, said the idea was conceived by Merson when the two women served as co-chairs of the school’s early childhood committee. The two parents brought the idea to JFS, which undertook to handle all communications between the school and the two selected families.
"We met with JFS over the summer to discuss the program," said Goldman, "and were told that as a result of providing these basic necessities on a monthly basis, both families were able to get back on their feet. We all felt it was a success and should be continued this year." This year, parent Stacy Stein of River Edge is coordinating the program.
According to Goldman, "the volunteers, teachers, and children have all gained much from the program. The teachers have been able to use it as a teaching tool and the kids really understand that they are bringing in toilet paper or cereal for someone who would not have it otherwise."
"All of us are proud that we can do something to help another family," she said. "We hope that we can get this year’s family back on their feet as well."