“We are the future,” said Jessica Baer, a freshman at Fair Lawn High School. “We’ll be running the world, and I want to be sure that world will be a good and safe environment.”
For the myriad ways in which Jessica is striving toward that goal, she was chosen to receive the Young Leadership award at Areyvut’s annual Bergen County Breakfast on Sunday, April 6, at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.
Since its founding in September 2002, Bergenfield-based Areyvut (Hebrew for “responsibility”) has offered innovative programs for day schools, congregational schools, synagogues, community centers, and families. It works to infuse the core Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity), and tikkun olam (social action).
|Jessica Baer went to Ghana for Breaking the Chain through Education, an organization in which she is active. Courtesy Baer family|
“Our major goal is getting people involved in making a difference in the community, in making chesed a part of their daily routine in a hands-on way,” Areyvut’s founder and director, Daniel Rothner, said.
“Jessica came to Areyvut through our mitzvah clowning program, which she has been doing for the last three years. But what is unique about her is that she has engaged her family, her synagogue, and her broader community in her chesed projects.”
From the time she was 10, Jessica has been active in the organization Breaking the Chain through Education, which works to rescue child slaves and help eradicate slave trafficking by building schools in Ghana. Her older sister, Julia, and parents, Michael and Robin, went with her to the African country, and she has sought support for this project at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and at her school.
“Few high school freshman are worried about children the world over, and few are engaging their parents and synagogues in effectuating change,” Mr. Rothner said. “She’s just starting out, and yet she has done more than many have done in a lifetime. We hope that people who attend the breakfast will be inspired to action by her example.”
Jessica and her sister study at the Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies and they are active in USY, the Conservative movement’s youth group.
Jessica also is involved in Pony Powers, a therapeutic riding program in Mahwah for children with disabilities. “All the organizations I’m involved in are about kids” she said. “What motivates me is seeing their reactions.”
Before her bat mitzvah in 2011, she noticed an ad for Areyvut’s mitzvah clown training in the Jewish Standard. She thought that would make a good complement to the mitzvah projects with which she was already involved. Now she “gets all clowned up” once a month to cheer patients in area hospitals and nursing homes.
“I go room by room or around a sitting area, talking to the patients about whatever they’re going through,” she said. “I break the ice by doing a magic trick or making a balloon animal to make them smile.”
Her father said that Jessica inspired him to join the board of directors of both Areyvut and Breaking the Chain through Education.
“Believe it or not, Jessica was a quiet, shy girl, but when she started doing mitzvah clowning she put on a different persona and interacted with the kids,” said Mr. Baer, who attended the one-day training session with his daughter.
“I had tears in my eyes to see that transformation, and I saw it again in Africa. I don’t think she stopped smiling from the time she got off the plane to the time she got back on the plane, under not the greatest conditions there. I cannot begin to express our pride.”
At the breakfast, Shira Hammerman of West Orange will receive the Community Leadership Award. She has been Areyvut’s educational consultant for 10 years, developing products such as the Kindness A Day calendar, which suggests a specific action to take every day. Mr. Rothner describes her as “really a visionary.”
Mr. Rothner calls Areyvut a “niche organization.” It partners with 150 other agencies, including the Jewish Home at Rockleigh. It sponsors chesed and bnai mitzvah project fairs, Jewish teen philanthropy programs, and offers a variety of courses for Jewish youth and teens, such as “Music & Morals” and “Sex & Torah.” Most of its annual $300,000 budget is covered by individual donors; fees are charged for courses and services such as mitzvah clowning.