Matching b’nai mitzvah with mitzvot
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Matching b’nai mitzvah with mitzvot

Kesher Olam provides critical connections

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CLEANING UP FOR KESHER Children of members of Kehillat Kesher, the Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood, banded together on Sunday, Sept. 25, to raise funds for the Teaneck Baby Gemach, a local charity which provides diapers and formula to families in need. (“Gemach” is a Hebrew acronym meaning “gemilut chasadim,” or “deeds of lovingkindness.”) The children raised over $320. Courtesy Andrew Leibowitz

Several years ago, as Noah Shlufman began the road that would carry him to his bar mitzvah, his father made a discovery.

As Dan Shlufman joined other parents at his synagogue to discuss the year ahead, students were sent to a different area of the shul to discuss bar/bat mitzvah projects.

“We sent them down with the educational director and past students to talk about different projects,” said Shlufman. “It seemed a bit ad hoc – like reinventing the wheel.”

He also realized, he said, that organizing b’nai/b’not mitzvah projects was precisely the kind of venture the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) might be involved with.

Said Shlufman, the JFNNJ secretary, “We have the resources, and it’s a way to connect to our synagogues and provide ‘added value’ – a real connection to people in the community.”

After speaking with his rabbi, David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, he became even more excited about the bar mitzvah initiative and presented the idea to federation leadership, which warmly endorsed the project.

Working with a committee that included rabbis and community leaders, Shlufman and his group created Kesher Olam (“Connection to the World”).

The idea, he said, was to “coordinate a lot of bar mitzvah projects for the synagogues in our catchment area.” Five synagogues were selected to pilot the project – his own, Shomrei Torah (Wayne), Avodat Shalom (River Edge), the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, and Temple Beth Or (Washington Township) – but the initiative ultimately is intended to embrace all area shuls.

Shlufman said that while the project involves different arms of the federation – from the Synagogue Leadership Initiative to the Jewish Community Relations Council to the Israel Program Center – “it is being branded as a [federation] program.”

He noted that Alice Blass, the JCRC volunteer coordinator and the professional assigned to the project, prepared a booklet about the initiative.

“Kesher Olam: Connection to the World,” says the booklet, “provides meaningful projects for b’nai mitzvah children, ages 12-13, to join in the good work that is done by various agencies in our community and abroad. Inside this booklet are opportunities to learn, to give back, to experience tikkun olam, repairing the world, and the joy of helping others through hands-on experiences.”

Participation in the program is voluntary. Those who opt to join must devote 15 hours to a project involving “hands-on activities and not merely fundraising.” Quarterly check-ins with federation or with their synagogue is required, and participants are asked to keep a journal of their experiences.

Suggested programs are grouped by interest area, such as “Cancer Assistance Programs” or “Israel Programs,” and specific organizations, such as Sharsheret and One Family Fund, are suggested. The booklet also provides project descriptions and contact information, as well as application forms.

“It doesn’t have to be a Jewish project, but it has to be Jewish-related or espouse Jewish values,” said Shlufman.

Blass, he said, reached out to 40 agencies to gauge their interest in having student volunteers. Of those, more than 20 voiced interest. The next step was to ensure they had programs suitable for 12-year-olds and could provide the necessary oversight.

Synagogues participating in the venture “pre-approve” the listed projects, which, are “optional but sanctioned,” said Shlufman, pointing out that one part of UJFNNJ’s strategic plan is volunteerism, which dovetails nicely with Kesher Olam.

In addition, he said, it will help federation reach out to individuals between 35 and 50, “people we don’t usually get.”

He has already spoken with parents at the five pilot synagogues and gotten good feedback on the project.

“Our hope is to open this up to all synagogues within a few years,” he said, “but we don’t have the professional staff to do that now. We’d like to get some sponsors for the program so it can be expanded and self-sustaining.”

Joy Kurland, JCRC director, said she thinks the importance of the project “is its ability to connect synagogues in an even greater and more meaningful way to federation and provide opportunities for their engagement.”

“Doing community service and meaningful hands-on volunteerism is of great value in learning about tikkun olam,” she said. “It provides [students] with a rich and meaningful experience.” Blass, she said, is the ideal coordinator since in her work with JCRC “she matches volunteers with projects.”

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, the JCRC chairman and religious leader of Avodat Shalom in River Edge, said, “For more than 20 years, my congregation has required that b’nai mitzvah students give a portion of their cash gifts to tzedakah and some time to the community.”

When Shlufman and federation leader Michael Starr – the president of Avodat Shalom – approached him about Kesher Olam, “It brought to the table a new initiative: How to do this communal service in a Jewish communal context.”

Borovitz said he “thought this would be great way to connect to people doing tikkun olam through the Jewish community. I think it’s great. It brings structure to a program that is really good and worthwhile for our kids and families.”

Most important, he said, “It brings an awareness of what we, as an organized Jewish community, do,” he said, describing as “holy work” projects such as those launched by the JCRC, SLI, and Bonim.

“It’s important to make the average Jew in our community aware that this is part of our own Jewish community,” he said.

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