The world could always use more mensches, so how can parents help children internalize the Jewish values of repairing the world and being a good community member?
“Parents can encourage volunteerism through leading by example,” said Lindsay Gaister, director of after-school programming and social action at Beth Tfiloh Congregation. “If your kids see you getting excited about volunteering, chances are, they will get excited too.”
Another way to encourage kids to volunteer, Gaister said, is by “letting them choose projects they’re interested in and asking them to come up with their own ideas to solve issues in the community.” Parents, however, will need to help guide these ideas in the right direction, Gaister added. “It is so important when volunteering that people realize each individual and organization has different needs and making a difference means responding to what is needed, not just doing what you want to do.”
Whether a child is acting individually or through their synagogue or other community organization, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. “People don’t learn tikkun olam in a classroom with a teacher. They learn through taking action. Being able to see the people they are helping firsthand makes volunteering even more meaningful. Calling bingo at a nursing home and seeing the residents’ faces light up is such a rewarding experience that you cannot teach kids about without having them experience it for themselves,” Gaister said. Volunteering also “allows children to feel a sense of accomplishment while developing new skills and building a network for the future,” she said.
Beth Tfiloh’s congregation has the BT Cares Social Action Group, which offers parents opportunities to get involved in tikkun olam alongside their children. According to Gaister, each year Beth Tfiloh families assemble 1,000 mishloach manot bags for Jewish nursing homes and hospitals. At their mitzvah crafts event, families make crafts that are donated to community organizations. Projects have included making food for shelters and planting succulents for nursing homes.
At Chizuk Amuno Congregation, student volunteers created cards for members of the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The fifth and sixth graders participated in a Mitzvah Fair, according to Cheryl Snyderman, the synagogue’s director of gemilut hasadim. Snyderman encourages parents to make volunteering feel like less of a school requirement and more of a “special family activity time, where you can enjoy being together while doing something good.”
Snyderman said Chizuk Amuno offers volunteer opportunities that bring its members together as a community, such as tutoring through Reading Partners, cooking meals at the Ronald McDonald House and knitting hats for the homeless. But the community outside the synagogue can participate in its three annual food drives and two annual clothing drives, or work on a project with Art with a Heart. “We have a very long reach,” Snyderman said.
Jewish Volunteer Connection, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, also connects families with opportunities to give back. JVC “engages community members to meet the needs of the Jewish and larger community,” said JVC’s assistant director Erica Bloom. Bloom calls her job — placing volunteers where they’re most critically needed — “matchmaking.”
“We have four large annual days of service, which are community day-wide events accessible to families and all ages … as well as opportunities for smaller-scale involvement,” Bloom said.
JVC creates “volunteams,” said Bloom, that recruit members for specific or recurring projects. “I got an email yesterday from one of our ‘volunteam’ members. This particular one meets on a monthly basis.” On this team, families can sign up for a playdate, “going as a group to visit Springwell,” a retirement home. The email told Bloom that a playdate participant posted on social media about their experience, and how an older adult was rapt by the kids’ singing and kept repeating, “This is wonderful!”
Families can also choose a project from the JVC’s Live with Purpose monthly calendar. The calendar offers a different project idea each month and can be done at “home, at school, for a birthday party, as a family or with a group of families,” Bloom said. This month’s project is a casserole challenge. “We’re inviting people to make a homemade casserole,” and JVC hopes to see 200 families participate by the Nov. 26 deadline. “We have different drop-off locations,” Bloom said, that can be found on JVC’s website, jvcbaltimore.org.
“Live with Purpose is a really great way to fit volunteering into people’s schedule,” Bloom said. “We know people have a desire to do great things, and we’re trying to make it easy.”
“While children have so many commitments, including sports and homework, instilling a strong Jewish identity and Jewish morals and values is key to raising a well-rounded child,” Gaister added. “Allowing your children see how fortunate they are and how much of a difference they are able to make in the lives of others is so important.”
Added Bloom, “by participating in service within a Jewish lens, we’re helping build more mensches.”
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.