Sometimes, even when you tell children they are doing a mitzvah, they don’t really get it. But sometimes — when they see the results of their efforts — they do.
Judith Kuper Jaffe, director of congregational learning at Shomrei Torah Wayne Conservative Congregation, gives the shul’s religious school children — there are about 70 of them — an opportunity to perform mitzvot every week. But she’s the first to agree that “sometimes there’s a disconnect in their lives between what they learn, what we pray, and what we do.”
Ms. Jaffe started introducing weekly mitzvah projects years ago, coming up with the ideas on her own and ensuring that each project would be “tactile.” One of those projects is writing “notes of prayer and gratitude” to the lone soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. When one of those soldiers came to the school to thank the students, the mitzvah took on a whole new meaning.
The school sends its letters either through the Package from Home project or through Friends of the IDF. “We tried to collect items as well, but we don’t have volunteers to help,” Ms. Jaffe said. “Now we just send letters.”
“Former Manalapan resident Eldad — who requested that his last name not be used — received a note from one of our upcoming b’nai mitzvah and was so excited that the note came from his home state of New Jersey,” she said. “The soldier asked his mother to track us down so he could come and say thank you. He wanted to come and personally thank our students and the student who wrote to him.”
That’s why Ms. Jaffe received a phone call from someone in Manalapan in August. “I was told it was a woman with a Russian accent, and she was crying,” she said. “She told me that her son saw that the card was from New Jersey. He asked her to find the school and — since he would soon be coming home on a vacation — arrange a visit.”
His mother accompanied Eldad on his visit to the school.
Although her students did not expect replies — according to Ms. Jaffe, one soldier had replied some 15 years ago — they were delighted to get one. And, she said, they “used the opportunity of the soldier’s visit to ask him all kinds of questions.” Those questions, from third- through seventh-graders, may not have been profound — including such issues as whether tanks are air-conditioned, if army food is good, and how it feels to hold a gun — but they meant a great deal to Eldad and to his mother, “who beamed with pride the entire time.”
After Eldad’s visit, “most of the kids now understand what we were doing,” she said. “In conversations with students afterwards, they used the word ‘happy.’ They said, ‘We made the guy so happy. He really opened the letter and it meant something.’ Even the third-graders got that.” The feeling was mutual. “When the kids saw him, he could have been a rock star,” Ms. Jaffe said, adding that Eldad has been in the IDF for 10 months.
“Eldad arrived at the school with the letter he received all folded up in his pocket. He was so excited to share it with the religious school students, and curious to meet the child who wrote to him. Since the note was not signed and was written in cursive, we passed it around to the older elementary and middle school students.
“Suddenly a shriek was heard, and 13-year-old Joshua Spodek, who recently became a bar mitzvah, identified his own handwriting. He wrote it last spring.”
Joshua later told Ms. Jaffe that he always participated in the letter-writing “because it was a nice thing to do and the right thing to do. It feels good.” Still, she said, “Josh emphatically responded ‘no’ when asked whether he ever imagined a soldier receiving it, or even that his note would make it to Israel.”
Joshua said he really didn’t understand what a lone soldier was until he met and heard Eldad, Ms. Jaffe reported. Now that he does, she added, “he enthusiastically agreed that he would put more ‘umph’ into the activity, because he now understands that a real person receives it and feels good getting it. Meeting Eldad was very uplifting and very real, he told her.
“He was very excited to shake his hand and meet someone who was defending Israel,” Ms. Jaffe said. “And most of all, Josh loved his beret.
“How often do you get to make that real connection?” she mused. “You never know what is going to resonate with a kid and at what age. Eldad talked about his experiences, and even if they didn’t get the whole story, the students at least got a piece of it.
“I learned something, too. A tank seats 12, but there are only four in it at a given time.”
In addition to writing letters to lone soldiers, Jaffe’s students have written letters in connection with blood drives and participate in a group called Comedy Cures, writing jokes for the organization. (An example of the jokes: Why is a tomato red? It saw the salad dressing.)