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Central Jersey teens participate in J-Serve

Read this story in mycentraljersey.com

Fourteen-year-old Leora Wasserman has her future planned out. Interested in someday becoming a "lone soldier" for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Leora, a township resident, spent Sunday participating in J-Serve, a one-day community service extravaganza locally organized by The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. A "lone soldier" is one who does not have family in the country and goes alone to serve.

Because of her future plans, she chose to focus Sunday's community service on tasks that benefited men and women in the military.

After completing putting together snack packages with Home Front Hearts, a township-based program that aids military personnel and their families, Leora learned about the moral code of the IDF from the nonprofit international education organization Stand With Us, then wrote a letter to an Israeli soldier.

"I hope that someday, someone does this for me," said Leora, a ninth-grade student at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck. "I have been interested in going into the military for a long time. Now, I am doing this for others."

Leora was one of more than 150 youth in grades 6 to 12 who joined to participate in J-Serve. The teenagers completed a variety of activities in-house and off-site. Some assembled toiletry kits, made a blanket and prepared lunches for Elijah's Promise Soup Kitchen, a New Brunswick-based organization that feeds and aids the homeless, made place mats for West Point Military Academy Jewish Chapel and Jewish Family Services Kosher Meals on Wheels, wrapped cutlery packs for Ronald McDonald House and made phone calls for The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.

Others took a short trip to help organize the Crisis Room at Aldersgate United Methodist Church or visit with seniors at The Chelsea at East Brunswick and Sunrise of East Brunswick senior assisted-living centers.

An international day of Jewish youth service, J-Serve involved more than 11,000 teenagers from more than 90 communities around the world and 16 countries who came together to serve their communities and make a difference last year, said Laura Safran, the Federation's director of community impact. This year, the second time the local federation was involved, was expected to be even bigger.

While most of the teenagers involved in the Federation's effort were Jewish, Aaron Nayer, education director of Temple B'nai Shalom, said the event was open to teens of all faiths. Participants included members of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization (BBYO), Temple B'nai Shalom (which hosted the event), East Brunswick Jewish Center, Young Israel of East Brunswick, the township's Youth Council and Spectrum, a special-needs facility in Edison.

"I came here to do a good deed and help out the community," said Jeremy Harmon, 17, a member of BBYO from the Basking Ridge section of Bernards. "We are blessed to live in the community and the home that we do, so we should do for others."

"It feels really good to be helping," said Torah Academy of Bergen County student Yitzy Kevelson, 14, of East Brunswick.

"I feel good about myself that I made a difference in the world," added Gavriel Katzenberg, 15, of East Brunswick, who attends Churchill Junior High School.

J-Serve is inspired by Jewish values and provides teens with the opportunity to fulfill the Jewish values of gemilut chasidim — acts of loving kindness; tzedakah — just and charitable giving; and tikkun olam — the responsibility to repair the world.

According to the organizers, the goal is to immerse the teenagers in worthwhile local causes while educating them about community needs and deepening their connection with supporting charities — and each other.

"Everyone has a reason for being here," said Linda Benish, a consultant with the Teen Program at the Federation. "The intent in what we do shows what we value. It helps us to understand that when we do something good because we want to help, we participate in tikkun olam — fixing the world and making it better. This makes us better."

While J-Serve is a once-a-year program on a national scale, the idea to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs and agents of change in the world is a daily goal. Safran said that J-Serve is a program that fills a significant need in the community.

"By allowing our youth to make a contribution in the community, we teach them that their contributions matter," Safran said. "This program is one step towards helping our children grow to become inspiring people that lead by example and can empower others to join them in making much-needed changes in the world."

According to Safran, the event is a "win-win for everyone."

"The young people that volunteer grow in their abilities to empathize with others, reflect and take action," she said. "The populations they are engaging with benefit from their passion. And the kids had fun doing it."

For more information, visit jewishmiddlesex.org/family/j-serve.

Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; cmakin@mycentraljersey.com

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