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Teens Put Their Faith in Helping Others with Basics

by Rochelle Koff

Originally appeared in the Miami Herald, November 16, 2015

Dylan Heller is only 12, but she understands the importance of giving back to the community.

She interned at the kosher food bank run by Jewish Community Services of South Florida over the summer, and “by the end, I wanted to do more,” said Dylan, a seventh-grader at Scheck Hillel Community Day School near North Miami Beach. “I thought, I can’t stop doing this.”

Dylan now spends every Friday afternoon stocking and sorting groceries at the food bank. And when her grandmother recently offered to buy her an Apple Watch, she knew there was a better use for the money.

“I didn’t feel like I needed the watch as much as other people need food,” said Dylan, who asked her grandmother if she could use the money to buy groceries for the food bank instead. So, she and Bonnie Schwartzbaum, director of the Jewish Community Services’ kosher food bank, bought $200 in groceries at Publix.

“She loves it so much,” said Dylan’s mom, Rita. “She’s inspired all of us.”

Many Jewish teens often get their first serious exposure to philanthropy as part of their bar and bat mitzvahs, which incorporates community service as part of the religious education.

The Jewish Teen Funders Network, a resource for the “growing field of Jewish teen philanthropy,” is building on the desire of Jewish youth to continue serving their communities, said Stefanie Zelkind, the network’s founding director.

The teen group, part of the Jewish Funders Network, works with educators and professionals at synagogues, summer camps, Jewish centers and federations. The aim is to help form teen boards that will make decisions about raising and donating money. Jewish teen philanthropy programs introduce teens to collective grant-making, Zelkind said, and provide leadership skills. At summer camps, the network distributes micro-grants, allowing teens to elicit proposals and make their own choices.

“They’re making real decisions with real dollars for organizations that most resonate with them,” Zelkind said. “We see in all of our programs that teens are so aware of the needs in their community. They’re passionate about those issues that resonate with them and they want to make a difference.”

Giving back “is very much a part of what it means to be Jewish,” said Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “In a faith-based community like ours, working for the betterment of the world is not just a nice thing to do, it's an imperative, and there is an urgency to making sure these behaviors are perpetuated from generation to generation.”

It’s both required behavior, and also a tradition, he said, “like a Fiddler on the Roof kind of tradition.”

In Jewish families, synagogues and schools, teens learn the importance of “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.”

Efforts to repair the world can take many forms. Joshua Bonwitt was 13 when he participated in the Young Lion of Judah Program run by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Jewish Volunteer Center. The program introduces bar or bat mitzvah teens to Holocaust survivors with the help of the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach.

“My cousin and I got to know this couple who were both Holocaust survivors,” said Joshua, now 16, and a junior at Scheck Hillel Community Day School. “Listening to their stories, we got a closer understanding of what the Holocaust truly is. What they went through was horrible. They were about my age when they were taken away.’’

Joshua covets his friendship with Marcia and Joe Sachs of Sunny Isles Beach, who participated in his bar mitzvah and are still part of his life. “A few weeks ago, they were over for brunch,” he said. “I feel like they’re family.”

Michael Seidl is also reaching across generations. The 16-year-old teaches grandparents how to use Skype, Facebook and email so they can better communicate with their grandchildren.

“Some didn’t even know how to use their cellphones and text their grandchildren,” said Michael, a junior at the University School of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, and a member of the Jewish Volunteer Center’s Teen Leadership program.

Teens say once they get involved, it’s not hard to find friends to help.

“The passion to create something for the community is contagious,” said Marian Mendelsohn, director of special projects for Jewish Community Services.

Seeing the results also spurs kids to do more.

“In the beginning I didn’t realize how a simple song could change the way someone’s day was going or how their week was going,” said Nicole Birmaher, who co-founded a group called Singing for Smiles with friend Dalit Merenfeld. “It was the most rewarding thing I would do.”

Through Jewish Community Services, the friends began singing at senior centers, assisted living facilities and at events for special needs clients. Though Birmaher and Merenfeld have graduated, their friend Michelle Langone is keeping the singing group going.

“We did give them a reason to smile,” said Birmaher, 18, now a freshman at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. She was so touched by the experience that she’s majoring in music therapy at UM.

Volunteering “helps you realize how lucky you are to have what you have,” said Alyssa Levin, 18, and the public relations manager for the Make a Wish Foundation club at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. The group raises money to provide memorable experiences for children with life-threatening diseases.

One of the most important values kids can learn is to make the world a better place, said Lori Tabachnikoff, director of the Jewish Volunteer Center at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “They’re taught how important it is to represent themselves in the community as teenagers who do have compassion and empathy for others.”

Miami attorney Bonnie Sockel-Stone, past president of the National Council of Jewish Women Greater Miami Section, said she and her husband have made community service a priority.

“As a family, we think it’s important to give back,” said Sockel-Stone, whose daughter Lilly became interested in volunteering as a young child.

Now 17, Lilly Stone is passionate about helping children in crisis. She has organized toy drives and collected toiletries for kids going into foster care “who don’t have any of their own stuff.”

She and her friends brought pajamas and books to Miami’s Kristi House Child Advocacy Center, which helps child victims of sexual abuse and human-trafficking. They also took photos of the kids and put them in frames they could decorate.

“A lot of them don’t have a house or pictures of themselves hanging up on the wall,” said Lilly, a senior at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School in North Miami. “They were so enamored of the pictures. It’s the little things that we don’t think to appreciate. It touches your heart.”

Volunteering has made such a big difference in her life that Morgan Hirsch, 17, decided to write about it for her college essay.

“It involved one particular boy who I met visiting the Ronald McDonald House,” said Morgan, chair of the Jewish Community Services South Dade Teen Leadership Board. “I spent a lot of time thinking about him and how strong he was, fighting cancer. Even though he’s years younger, he’s a hero to me.

“Volunteering is something that has been built into my everyday life,” Morgan said. “It honestly formed who I am today.”


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