Jared Raitzyk believes his life would have unfolded differently without his big brother Seth.
Raitzyk was an infant when his father was murdered right outside his home, forcing Raitzyk’s mother to fill two parental roles while supporting the family.
By the time Raitzyk was 7 years old he was having behavior issues. Raitzyk’s mother felt her son needed support, maybe from an older male role model.
Enter big brother Seth Katzen.
Katzen wasn’t born into the Raitzyk family. The family found him through Jewish Big Brother Big Sister, a program of Jewish Community Services. The mentorship program was supposed to last two years, but “there never was an end,” said Raitzyk.
Twenty-five years later, the two maintain a strong connection. “Literally, Jared is a part of my family and I’m a part of his,” Katzen said.
JBBBS is similar to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America but it is not an affiliate, explained Beth Land Hecht, JCS senior manager of community engagement. All 75 of JBBBS’s “bigs” and “littles” “come from Jewish backgrounds from unaffiliated to highly observant. We encourage our matches to share in Jewish experiences and holidays, as well as volunteer within the Jewish community,” said Hecht.
JBBBS began through prison visitation, Hecht explained.
“In 1914, a few enterprising locals took it upon themselves to visit Jewish inmates in prison and stem the tide of ‘delinquency or delinquent tendency’ in young Jewish boys,” she said.
By 1916, the group had incorporated and launched a board. They added a program for women and girls in 1940.
Despite these changes over the past 104 years, Hecht said, “the main component of the program has changed very little.”
It consists of matching an adult volunteer, the “big,” with a child aged 7 to 17 “in need of a caring and supportive adult role model.”
The Beginning of Brotherhood
Katzen was a 26-year-old newlywed when he learned of the JBBBS program through his wife’s involvement with The Associated.
“We didn’t have children at the time,” he said, “and that was where I felt I could give back.”
It was so long ago he only vaguely remembers an interview process with a caseworker where he made the requisite two-year commitment to see his little a minimum of once every two weeks. Katzen said he then met Raitzyk and his mother.
Hecht said volunteers are background-checked and interviewed about their interests and preferences. A match team then meets both groups to determine matches. When possible, they match bigs with littles who have a shared family history or situation.
Katzen said he wasn’t sure what to expect. People can appear to be a good match on paper but lack chemistry when they meet.
But Katzen and Raitzyk got along.
“We just felt like it was going to work,” Katzen said.
Katzen took Raitzyk to movies, to lunch, or “just hung out without an activity.” Katzen felt he filled a fraternal space in Raitzyk’s life.
“He was still kind of young,” Raitzyk said. “He had just married his wife and had a lot of time to spend. He was playful but could still be serious. We went out to eat a lot at Bill Bateman’s. It was the first time I had real Buffalo wings. We went to movies and played a lot of catch.”
While eating Buffalo wings and playing catch may not seem like transformational experiences to a bystander, Raitzyk said the relationship helped him through big things in his life.
“Men do talk about their feelings,” Raitzyk said. “They just do it in a roundabout way. My mom raised me to be open with my feelings, and he’s pretty open with his, but we don’t force anything. I told my mom a lot of stuff. I talked about girls, but some stuff I didn’t feel comfortable talking about with my mom.”
The Evolution of a Bond
After Raitzyk turned 9, the mentorship was supposed to officially end, but the two felt their relationship had grown beyond that. They felt like family.
“How do you just stop?” Katzen said. “I was the big brother he didn’t have.”
Hecht said Katzen and Raitzyk’s experience isn’t uncommon.
“A one-year commitment of the big and family are required,” she said. “However, some of our matches can last eight years or longer. Many matches end when the child turns 18, but the relationship continues throughout the lives of the bigs and littles.”
As Raitzyk navigated his teenage years, Katzen navigated new fatherhood with his kids. Despite the changes in their lives, their relationship kept getting stronger. When Raitzyk had his bar mitzvah, Katzen was there. When Raitzyk was 21 and his mother died from cancer, Katzen was there.
Katzen said he’s proud of his little brother. As a teen, “you’re exposed to a lot of things,” Katzen said, and Raitzyk “had health issues in high school. His mom had health issues. He went through some rough things and rose above it. It would have been very easy for him to fall through the cracks, but he made something out of himself.”
Katzen and his family moved to Florida in 2002, but “we still kept in touch,” Katzen said. “I flew him down to visit.”
Today, Katzen is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Delaware. He and his wife have three children: a 25-year-old daughter and 21-year-old twin boys. He was only 26 when he decided to mentor Raitzyk, but Katzen said that decision is “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, never knowing at the time how it would evolve the way it did.”
Hecht said studies show that youth who have bigs are “less likely to drop out of school, less likely to become involved with alcohol and other drugs, and more likely to have positive relationships with family members.”
JCS maintains contact with the littles, their parents, and the bigs monthly for the first year and quarterly thereafter.
The program’s longevity, said Hecht, “speaks to the continued need for children to have positive role models in their lives.”
“We formally evaluate effectiveness and [littles’] improvement in self-confidence, expression of feelings, attitude toward school, showing trust, and improved relationships with family and peers on a yearly basis,” Hecht said. “Our littles show growth in these areas consistently.”
Many of the littles return to JBBBS as adults, to volunteer as bigs. That’s exactly what Raitzyk did.
From Generation to Generation
In his early 20s, after his mother died, Raitzyk realized he could pass on his experience to another child, and he decided to become a big brother himself.
He took the three mandatory trainings and was matched with a 10-year-old little brother. Like his relationship with Katzen, Raitzyk’s relationship with his little is still going strong.
“I’ve watched him grow, from 7 to 32 years old,” Katzen said, and now Katzen helps Raitzyk with his mentoring.
It’s added a new dimension to their relationship.
“Every time I’m with Jared, we talk about his experience as a big brother,” Katzen said.
Raitzyk is now a 33-year-old college graduate. He’s a teacher, a DJ, and does magic. He’s considering returning to school for another degree. He’s unmarried and happily shares he has no college debt.
His little brother is 18 years old and in college.
“He’s quiet, a little shy,” Raitzyk said. “But he comes out of his shell for me.”
The two have spent their time together in much the same way Katzen and Raitzyk did years ago.
But it’s not the Orioles games that keep them together, Raitzyk said. What matters to his little is what mattered to him.
“Just being able to know I’m an important part of his life,” he said. “He trusts me enough to open up about those things. Seth was with me through thick and thin, and I want to do the same. Hopefully I’ll be at his wedding one day.”