What’s in a name? According to Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad of Utah, a lot. Having finally given “Project Heart” its official designation, he feels the name says it all.
Project H.E.A.R.T.– Hebrew Education for At Risk Teens — evolved from a phone call Zippel received twelve years ago from a Chabad congregant in Southern California. The man’s teenage son had been recently sent to a residential treatment center for adolescents near Salt Lake City for violent behavior and a substance-abuse problem, and Zippel was asked if he would visit with him. When he did, Zippel realized the boy was only one of dozens of Jews in the school, and hundreds more in similar institutions across the state. As he looked into it further, and began receiving more calls from concerned parents across the U.S. and even abroad, Zippel became aware of an entire Jewish demographic in his state in dire need of Jewish education, inspiration and friendship.
Zippel began incorporating weekly and holiday visits to the schools into his routine, where he would spend an hour or two with the kids, studying Judaism, celebrating an upcoming holiday or simply chatting. Recently, having expanded activities to over ten institutions, he named the visits “Project H.E.A.R.T.”
Leila Schwartz*, whose 17 year old son Michael is currently boarding at a school near Salt Lake City, says the project’s name encapsulates Zippel’s interaction with her son and his fellow Jewish schoolmates. “When Rabbi Zippel’s car pulls up to the school, all the kids come running, and when he leaves, he has a throng accompanying him to the gate,” she says. “He has a fantastic rapport with the kids, he treats them with warmth and love and respect–and they love him. Michael waits for his visit all week.”
A weekly visit will usually begin with tefillin for the boys, and Shabbat candles for the girls to light on Friday. Though fire of any kind is wholly forbidden in any of these institutions, Rabbi Zippel consulted with rabbinic authorities who confirmed that the girls were permitted to perform the mitzvah over electric lights.
That thirst for a closer connection to Judaism on the part of the teenagers is the most surprising development to parents like Leila Schwartz. “When Michael went off to Utah in the heart of Mormon country, we didn’t think he would have anything to do with Judaism there,” she says. Instead, his experiences with Rabbi Zippel and his family–Michael was permitted to spend Passover with the Zippels and has permission to visit with them over Shabbat–have given him more than just a Jewish education, she says. “He’s felt the power of a Jewish heart, and it’s made a profound impression on him.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.