Daniel Rothner is proud of the organization he founded, and he’s a bit awed by what it has been able to accomplish.
“I challenge you to find an agency with a comparable size staff and/or budget that has this reach and impact,” he said of Areyvut, the Bergenfield-based organization he created in 2002 to develop opportunities for youth community involvement. “In terms of infrastructure — budget and staff size — we’re like a local little league team, playing in the majors” in terms of impact.
Working with rabbis, day schools, religious schools, parents, community leaders, and Jewish organizations, “we inspire our youth to get involved in ways they have never imagined,” Mr. Rothner, who is the organization’s director, said. The challenge now is doing all this during the pandemic.
In normal, what Mr. Rothner called “classic” years, Areyvut programs ranged from clowning — literally — to teen philanthropy, providing much-needed services to recipients and satisfaction to participants. The organization’s name comes from Talmud Tractate Shavuot 39a, which tells us that “kol yisrael areiveim zeh b’zeh” — that all Jews are accountable and responsible for one another. That is the lesson the group strives to teach.
Mr. Rothner talked about the “chesed boomerang,” the idea that when you help someone, you get just as much out of it as the other person does. “I believe it to be true,” he said. “It helps you appreciate your station in life, even in the middle of the pandemic. It’s empowering and powerful. And when families volunteer together, it gives them an opportunity to talk about their values and provides a teachable moment.”
Last year, Areyvut created Meals for Heroes, providing food for frontline hospital workers while supporting local food establishments that were struggling to stay open. As things began to return to a new normal, the program, which became less necessary, tapered off, and the organization turned its attention elsewhere.
“It was really needs-based in the early days of the pandemic,” Mr. Rothner said. Now, “as businesses have pivoted and changed — even though we’re far from the finish line — the needs at the hospitals dissipated and it is calmer, more under control.” He is grateful, he said, that Areyvut could play a leadership role with this program, “but we no longer have to do it.”
Mr. Rothner has annotated a U.S. map, showing the wide geographical range of places using Areyvut programs and educational materials. Embracing schools, camps, synagogues, senior centers, nonprofits and businesses, it’s an impressive picture.
One of Areyvut’s trademark activities are the “kindness clubs,” which, Mr. Rothner said, are appropriate for almost all venues. “It gets people to do chesed,” he said. “All the resources we develop are to help motivate, engage, and inspire people to action.” Whether through daily emails or the group’s kindness-a-day calendar, readers get practical suggestions on how to incorporate the values of chesed into their daily life.
The problem is not in finding things to do, but rather finding things that can be done during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, for example, young people could pay friendly visits to senior centers. Now, “there has to be a much wider definition of chesed,” encompassing virtual outreach.
“Options are limited,” Mr. Rothner said. “Before, youth could have volunteered at the JFCS kosher food pantry. Now it’s just staff, with limited hours. It’s harder than it should be. You shouldn’t have to struggle in terms of volunteering. Volunteering is ingrained culturally.
During a normal year, he continued, one of his favorite programs is Jewish teen philanthropy, where seventh-graders are asked to function as a board to choose where to allocate funds to organizations in need. “It’s a wonderful way for students to gain leadership skills, work on their teambuilding, and come together as one cohesive unit,” he said.
During their 10 sessions, students learn about philanthropy and local communal needs, participate in values-clarification exercises, host site visits, select causes to fund, volunteer for an agency they have chosen to support, and conclude the program by celebrating their achievements. “Once trained, it gives you a skill you can use throughout a lifetime,” Mr. Rothner said.
He is also a fan of the mitzvah clowning project, and he and his staff have trained more than 600 mitzvah clowns. According to Areyvut’s website, “What makes this program so special is the intergenerational nature of the program—kids and adults ages 9 to 99 can take part in bringing smiles to faces in this fun and lighthearted activity. Many parents have teamed up with their teens, as well as kids with senior citizens, to lift spirits and promote connection.”
In addition to learning more about bikkur cholim and visiting people with special needs, mitzvah clowns also learn how to apply clown makeup and create balloon animals. “It’s transformative,” Mr. Rothner said, bemoaning the fact that “this is the longest stretch in a decade that we have not been in an assisted living facility.”
Still, there are things that can be done, even now. For example, he said, about 5,000 people saw Areyvut’s online Chanukah resources. “We work daily to provide things that educate and motivate,” he said. “We’ve gotten a good amount of feedback from a wider range of places and people.” People generally don’t offer feedback unless they’re asked, he added, “so you will never know your true reach and impact.”
Mr. Rothner said the educators and staff members who create Areyvut’s educational and holiday materials put out high-level resources. “People are looking for quality,” he said. “When we put something out, it’s of a certain level.”
For more information about Areyvut, go to areyvut.org.