Off to a kind start: Organization invites youths to help, give

Posted on February 26, 2010

In today’s issue of the Chicago Jewish News is an article by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood that highlights Areyvut. I thank Pauline and the editor Joseph Aaron for helping to raise awareness about our important work. Here is the article:

When Chicago native Daniel Rothner was teaching middle school students, he had a realization: teach them the Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (social action) and they’ll keep those values for life.

That insight led Rothner in 2002 to create a non-profit organization called Areyvut (“accountability” or “responsibility” in Hebrew) that would help young people do just that.

While the organization, based in the Bergenfield-Teaneck, N.J. area, encourages charitable giving, it does much more. Rothner and Areyvut take a multi-pronged approach: They work with bar and bat mitzvah students and their families to develop social action projects that are particularly meaningful to them; help schools and synagogues put on b’nai mitzvah fairs; sponsor an international community service initiative called Make A Difference Day; publish a “kindness-a-day” desk calendar; sponsor a Teen Philanthropy Institute and a B’nai Mitzvah Essay Contest; and more. (Learn more at

Rothner, who grew up in West Rogers Park and is a graduate of Hillel Torah Day School and Ida Crown Jewish Academy, has brought a number of projects to Chicago, including Make A Difference Day, in which the organization partnered with the Jewish Community Center of Chicago, Chicagoland Jewish High School and other local synagogues and organizations.

Make A Difference Day has become so widespread, even outside of the United States, that it now takes place in several Israeli cities, as well as Warsaw and Tokyo.

The idea behind all the Areyvut projects is that “the kids that get involved today are going to be sitting on boards of organizations in the future,” Rothner said in a recent phone conversation.

When bar or bat mitzvah students – or students whose school or synagogue mandates a community service project-contact the organization, they’re usually looking for help in “personalizing a mitzvah project,” Rothner says. “We’ll meet with them literally in their kitchen or living room. We have connections with many different organizations and the ability to navigate the process of personalizing a project.”

Most important, he says, is to make that project “ongoing and natural. We ask the kid what their hobbies are, what issues do they want to address? Then we connect to that. We’re like a personal shopper or party planner for mitzvah projects. When students engage in this as part of their bar and bat mitzvah planning and preparation, hopefully they will continue on an ongoing basis and be motivated and inspired to continue their involvement.”

If the project is truly meaningful to them, “the likelihood is that it won’t be over for them after they get the iPod Shuffle and the Encyclopedia of Jewish Sports,” he says.

Guiding the student to work on something related to his or her particular interests is important, Rothner says. “There was somebody who was interested in (saving) manatees. I could have said, are you crazy? There are Jews in need. That would not have been effective but destructive. If you can highlight that and show the connection between (their project) and Judaism, you are serving the community.”

Money is a part of the process, as students often give a percentage of their b’nai mitzvah monetary gifts to the charity or project they are involved in. In addition, “there are a variety of opportunities that don’t have to do with money,” he says. “You can knit a hat for a cancer patient. You can write a letter to an Israeli or an American soldier. That will cost you a stamp. You don’t have to do an $18,000 mitzvah project. You can visit a senior and make a powerful, profound impact on both you and the person you’re visiting.”

That felicitous double whammy, Rothner says, is one of Areyvut’s guiding principles. “We often do chesed to help other people, but we ourselves are more impacted than the recipient, or just as much. When I go to visit patients at a hospital, it really has a profound impact on me.”

Helping young people see the role tzedakah and tikkun olam play in Jewish life is also important, he says. “They have heard about it, but have not put it into context,” he explains. “You can do a canned food drive but not have a concept of what it means to be hungry, visit a senior but not know what it means to be a senior citizen.”

Once young people get the message, their impact can be profound, he says. “Kids do some things that adults don’t have the ability to do. Kids put (awareness of) Darfur on the map. They have done things for Israel. Kids do these things all the time.”

Another positive message of the organization, Rothner says, is that “this is something that unites Jews. We often look for things that divide us. But if you are Conservative, haredi, Reform, secular, nobody is going to be able to say you shouldn’t give people food in a soup kitchen.”

He adds that while raising money for charities is important, “any time you raise money it’s not only the money you raise, it’s the awareness you raise.” He recalls one project sponsored by a local Jewish federation that was similar to Habitat for Humanity but built houses for needy Jews.
“One student asked everybody to give $18” to the organization, he says. “That raised people’s consciousness that not all Jews are affluent. When students work with Maot Chitim or The Ark, they see the faces of the people they serve. That’s good stuff, it’s powerful.”

Areyvut’s message, Rothner says, “is that this is central to Judaism. Judaism at its core is ethics and values. Either you’re a mensch or not. That is Judaism in a nutshell. All the other things are gravy.”

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