On Sunday, March 6, 293 Jewish teenagers volunteered at 16 sites around the city as part of J-Serve: International Day of Youth Service. The program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in Pittsburgh, was led by Carolyn Gerecht, director of teen learning at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, as well as representatives from BBYO, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Volunteer Center and Repair the World.
“The objective is to bring Pittsburgh Jewish teens together for a day of service,” said Chris Herman, director of Diller Teen Fellows.
Herman assisted Gerecht in manning the program and explained that the nearly 300 participating students arrived from Monroeville, North Hills, South Hills, Butler and Beaver and “all over the city.”
“We’re truly reaching all aspects of the greater Pittsburgh community,” he said.
Bella Terman attends Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. She and three other area teens traveled an hour to participate in J-Serve.
“It’s fun to be together with other Jewish people and hang out with my congregation more by helping other people,” she said.
Terman and other Butler-area teens volunteered at the Aleph Institute in Squirrel Hill. The group, along with 10 other teens, packaged mishloach manot baskets for the upcoming Purim holiday.
“They are packaging fruit roll-ups, raisins and hamantaschen — foods that will not spoil — to be given to prisoners by prison authorities,” said Rabbi Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute. “These last hundred [packages] are going to the local county jail or to state hospitals.”
Zach Doerr, of Congregation B’nai Abraham, said that he deliberately chose to volunteer with the Aleph Institute because he wanted to help the state’s many inmates.
“My dad is a judge, and he tells me horrible stories about how they get there, so I wanted to help them,” he said.
At each of the 16 volunteer sites, teen leaders and chaperones guided participants in a discussion about relevant Jewish values.
Marni Levin, also of Congregation B’nai Abraham, said that volunteering with the Aleph Institute granted her a newfound perspective.
“I’m appreciating all I have — my family, my friends, all the things I have,” she said.
“What I really got from today was that giving back to the community shouldn’t feel like a burden,” said Zach Christiansen, who volunteered with Cribs for Kids, an organization that provides comprehensive safe-sleep education and a safety-approved crib to families unable to afford one. “Today was just a fun day. It was really fulfilling.
“It expands your whole view of the Jewish sphere, doing different aspects of tzedakah,” he added. “From my cumulative years of J-Serve, I’ve seen how giving back to the community can be fun.”
Sammy Himmel, one of 20 teens who served on J-Serve’s steering committee, supervised volunteers for Beverly’s Birthdays, a local organization with a self-described mission of “providing birthday cheer for children experiencing homelessness and families in need.”
In organized corners around the room, teens packaged nail polish, confetti, candy and even what Himmel called “Boo-Boo Bunnies.”
“It’s like an ice-pack to help little kids,” he explained. “Over 300 kids will be helped. They’ll have birthday parties because of what is going on here.”
Danielle Brand spent the day volunteering with the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library.
“I went there last year and I loved it,” she said.
“It’s a place where people can go for toys if they don’t have money for toys,” added Sigalle Bahary.
J-Serve’s 293 volunteers was a record turnout, said Gerecht.
“It’s more than a 25 percent increase from last year,” added Rabbi Ron Symons, the JCC’s senior director of Jewish life.
“I think this is the largest event for Jewish teens of the year, this is huge,” said Rabbi Ari Goldberg, director of Pittsburgh NCSY and JSU.
Part of the event’s appeal is that it is largely teen led, he added. “For the last month, students have been coming into JSU at Allderdice, Upper St. Clair and Ellis promoting the event.”
Julie Missry, Jessie Holber, Rachel Gorby and Ally Burton co-chaired the event.
The group said that planning began last September. Months ago, the co-chairs and members of the steering committee worked with representatives from the Federation’s Volunteer Center to identify appropriate sites. Collectively, the group located sites where teens could volunteer for two-and-a-half hours on a Sunday, said Gerecht.
Local organizations also assisted in the efforts.
“Twenty-seven sponsoring Jewish organizations supported [and] provided chaperones, encouraged teens to attend, put money toward the event and included their logo,” said Gerecht.
Many organizations even invited the teenage members of J-Serve’s steering committee to speak to their youth groups about the J-Serve process.
“There were so many organizations that came together,” Gerecht said. “The impact was so much greater than if any of these organizations would have done it alone.”
Following volunteering, the co-chairs remarked on J-Serve’s abilities.
“It promotes long-lasting relationships between volunteers and organizations,” said Gorby. “It exceeded every goal we set.”
“We got to really different parts of Pittsburgh and made connections all over the city, it was pretty cool. It was also good to see so many people wake up so early to volunteer,” added Holber.
“J-Serve shows how volunteering can be very convenient, and what you get out of it is a lot,” said Burton. “Doing it as a Jewish community shows what we are as a Jewish people.”
Added Gerecht, “It shows the power of making a difference together.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.