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A website for deeds of kindness

Local activist launches online effort to spur volunteerism

 
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As a community activist and volunteer around Bergen County, Ariella Steinreich often found herself fielding calls from acquaintances and friends seeking ideas for chesed projects. “Chesed,” loosely translated, refers to acts of kindness.

“People would say, ‘I have a kid being bat mitzvahed and you have your pulse on volunteer opportunities. What can she do?’”

As the former community service coordinator of Ma’ayanot High School in Teaneck and a board member of several organizations, including the Jewish Association for the Developmentally Disabled, 22-year-old Steinreich is acutely familiar with the ins and outs of community volunteer work. Last year, she founded the “Pay it Forward” program, which pairs high-schoolers with younger students so they can serve as mentors and help with schoolwork.

The idealist in her, however, wanted to connect more people to volunteer work and, she said, “to bring chesed to the forefront.”

To that end, she created a one-stop resource for area chesed projects and opportunities. The website, called “allchesed.com,” is a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities geared towards adults and children who want to help others and give back. Allchesed.com provides information about volunteer opportunities at hospitals, schools, and organizations and lists opportunities to help the developmentally disabled, the poor, cancer victims, the blind, and just about anyone else who can use a helping hand.

“The website is a fun and easy way to find new volunteer opportunities within the community, to help volunteers find the leader within themselves,” she said.

“Some people are nervous about going to a hospital, or a nursing home. This makes it simple to find other options,” she said.

The site also contains a Google calendar with daily community chesed events. Steinreich said she already has items to list through March and is hoping for more.

The website brings the user to various categories and is easy for adults and children to navigate, she said, noting that she created it to be as user-friendly as possible.

The site, which is free of charge and does not contain ads, has generated a lot of positive feedback since it was launched recently. Thus far, more than 250 people have used the site, and many have signed up to receive the weekly e-mail containing information about upcoming chesed opportunities, she said.

Teaneck resident Betty Moheban first visited the site when looking for a way to volunteer and came away impressed. “It addresses a prevalent need in the community by uniting those who wish to volunteer,” Moheban said, adding that she found it easy to use. “It offers a wealth of information regarding various volunteer opportunities…and the monthly volunteer calendar is a convenient tool that enables volunteers to clearly view the opportunities that fit into their individual schedules.”

Steinreich said she hopes more organizations will hear about the site and contact her to have their information displayed so that more groups can be included. The site already includes links to various organizations and provides contact information enabling people to become involved with just a mouse click or phone call. The website features opportunities that allow volunteers to step forward at the spur of the moment — such as blood drives, walkathons, or hospital visits — or to become involved in long-term projects that are appropriate for b’nai mitzvah candidates, she said.

The listed organizations come from Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds, including some that are well established and others that are newer.

“This is a one-stop shop with no political allegiances. It’s a launching pad for chesed that bridges the gap. There’s Orthodox, non-affiliated, and non-Jewish groups,” said Steinreich.

“Chesed is one of these things that affects everybody. It’s not as if only a certain group of people need the chesed or need to do the chesed,” she said. Recalling that her parents’ generation “was all about rallying for things such as Soviet Jewry,” she noted that her peers are the volunteer generation and should be exposed to different ways they can contribute to the world.

“Chesed is something that is not based on intellectual ability; everyone can make an impact on their community using their talents. It enables everyone to become a leader,” she said. No matter what your skills, you can find an organization or opportunity where you can have an impact, she said.

One exciting feature is a page that provides ideas for travelers to Israel who are searching for volunteer opportunities there, she said.

Steinreich, who recently started working at a public relations firm, paid for the site herself and does weekly updates to the pages. “It was my way of giving back and doing chesed for my community,” she said. “I’m targeting my own community and hope this concept extends to other communities. I want this to grow.”

For now, however, she is content to get the conversation about chesed flowing.

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Standing together with Israel

Local groups join for evening of unity as they discuss ways to protect Israel

Lee Lasher of Englewood has a deep interest in ensuring that different parts of the local Jewish community come to trust, respect, and even like each other.

To that end, Mr. Lasher, an alumnus of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellows Leadership program, and fellow alums — and now friends — Ian Zimmerman of Glen Rock and Ari Hirt of Teaneck, formed a group called Unite4Unity, which until now has explored the bridges that actually do span the community.

Now, the three friends have decided to multitask. Another cause dear to all of them is Israel. What could be better, they thought, than to bring the community together around the Jewish state? And given their own orientation toward action, what would be best would be to give people information they can use to present Israel positively, to combat such threats as BDS with knowledge, insight, and passion.

 

Considering German Jews

Spätzle, weiner schnitzel, stuffed cabbage, and German chocolate cake are on the menu for Shabbat dinner on May 1 at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake. It’s all part of the shul’s weekend exploration of German Jewish heritage.

German Jews are known not only for their signature cuisine, however. They tend to have a reputation as “yekkes” — obsessively punctual, punctilious, and a touch pompous.

The shul’s Rabbi Benjamin Shull admits he bought into that stereotype — he is the descendant of Lithuanian Jews — until he discovered through genealogical research that he, too, has German-Jewish ancestors. So do about a third of his regular congregants.

 

Balancing attraction and halachic law

Local Orthodox rabbis meet with therapists and LGBT Jews

On Sunday, some leading Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, met with mental-health professionals and members of the Orthodox gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community for a conference on “sexual orientation and gender identity in the Orthodox and chasidic world,” as a press release put it.

The conference, about 150-strong, held at the Kraft House on Columbia University’s campus, was organized by the modern Orthodox, Upper West Side Lincoln Square Synagogue; the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology; and JQY, a nonprofit that provides support to young LGBT Orthodox and chasidic Jews.

 
 
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