Put together a third-grade religious school class of socially concerned youngsters with an enthusiastic and responsive teacher and the result: ‘1 boxes of children’s books collected and shipped to Lafayette Academy, a new charter elementary school in New Orleans whose library shelves are barely filled.
In December, Matthew Rosen approached his teacher, Rachel Ferat, at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township with a simple idea. Matthew, who lives in Ridgewood, loves to read and he figured kids in New Orleans love to read too, but might not have the books to do so. And so the book collection drive was born, and in less than two months, the children collected nearly ‘,000 books.
Soon to be 9 years old, Matthew speaks in a matter-of-fact tone about the very successful book drive that he initiated. He recalls, "My sister Talia and I were cleaning up our rooms and we had so many books that we had finished reading. Talia," who is 6, "wanted to sell them but I said that we should give them to charity instead.
"I remember from watching the news that people in New Orleans were throwing out moldy books and I thought they would need more books. So I went to Ms. Ferat during snack time and asked her if we could collect books. She told me to speak to Rabbi [Peter] Berg, and I did and he said sure," adds Matthew.
Matthew’s social activism is nurtured by his family. His parents, Larry and Laura, talk often to their children about people who are less fortunate than they are and encourage them to give tzedakah and help others any way they can. Larry, a pediatrician, says, "Laura, who is a psychologist, and I are both in the helping professions and we have raised our kids to think about other people who are less well off and to realize how fortunate they are. We also involve them in whatever volunteer work that we do by talking about it and including them when possible."
Matthew’s passion for helping others is also a natural outgrowth of Temple Beth Or’s emphasis on tikkun olam. Irene Bolton, who is director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth Or, says that the religious school curriculum teaches students "to be giraffes, to stick their necks out to make the world a better place."
Adds Bolton, "The entire religious school and the congregation brought in children’s books. We see this project as a way for students to apply what they learn in religious school, to make connections to the world today.
"Matthew showed us all what even a third-grader can do to change the world."
His teacher, Rachel Ferat, found that the project also changed the students, exciting them about doing social action.
"Some of my students even mobilized their schools to contribute to the drive, and our collection box is full and surrounded by shopping bags full of books," says Ferat. "My students were really getting to see what it means to mobilize a community for a good cause. And I’m kvelling all over the place!"
On Sunday, Feb. 4, which happened to be Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees, the children packed up the books and learned a valuable lesson: Recycling books is another way of saving trees. As they were surrounded by mountains of cartons of books, Ferat recalls, "My students were so proud and felt like the kings and queens of the Temple."
The donated books assume particular importance at Lafayette Academy for two reasons. Being only nine months old, it needs help filling its library shelves. In addition, as a charter school, it has an arts focus, and the creative arts are integrated into all aspects of its curriculum. There is a particular focus on creative writing and literature, hence, the need for children’s literature.
Barbara Starks, librarian at Lafayette Academy, speaks glowingly about the contributed books. "They are of very high quality, and the choices of titles were so appropriate for our children. These books enhance our collection, and I know our students will benefit from them as our teachers use them in teaching.
"We here at Lafayette are so appreciative that the children at Temple Beth Or remembered us in this way and shared their love of reading for us."