“Look, I can speak to my grandkids with this!” Holly Cohen, a resident at Bristal Assisted Living facility, exclaims. She’s holding an iPad, a gift from her son that she’s using for the first time. Billy Gold is the middle school student who helped her navigate the software. He’s part of a committed group that visits monthly from Valley Chabad of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
Another student sits with a senior in the home’s computer room. Together, they are finding the resident’s old high school on Google maps. “Can we try to visit my childhood home?” the senior asks eagerly. Other teens might help residents set up Facebook accounts so they can see pictures of their grandchildren or log into email accounts to check long-unopened messages.
“Technology is my passion,” says Nate Mintz. The seventh grader introduced the teens’ teaching technology model into the “Linking Hearts” program run by Rabbi Yosef Orenstein, Valley Chabad’s director of teen programming. Nate continues, “I want to pursue a career in computers, and there’s no better place to start than by helping these seniors.” Nate is also moved by something deeper: “When I share my knowledge, I feel fulfilled.”
Community service is an integral part of Judaism, so it’s no surprise that the two blend so seamlessly in a program that connects kids and seniors. In fact, there is a strong correlation between participation at synagogue and helping others: according to nationalservice.gov, 64% of teens who regularly attend religious services also volunteer. “The goal is to provide these kids an opportunity to give back while connecting them to other teens and to Jewish values,” says Orenstein, who started the Linking Hearts program six years ago with his wife, Estie. “There’s a strong social and Jewish component here.”
Volunteering sessions are not limited to social media tutorials. The monthly visits teens make to the senior home incorporate interactive elements along with fundamental Jewish values. Whether the seniors are baking cheesecakes for Shavuot or painting a color-by-number of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, they are always happy to see the kids. “The way the seniors faces light up when we enter the room makes it all worth it,” teen volunteer Jacob Shashoua testifies.
Linking Hearts is one of Chabad’s many teen programs with an emphasis on volunteering. Every CTeen event revolves around some form of giving back to the community. Before Passover, the group ran a food drive for needy families. They put together packages to send to Israeli soldiers. At one event, they decorated scarves for area firemen. At another, they tie-dyed t-shirts to be donated to kids in the hospital.
“There’s always a mitzvah wrapped up in these social events,” Shelly Klein explains with a laugh. Her high-school-aged daughter, Maddy, is an avid participant of CTeen, and is looking forward to becoming a CTeen Leader in the fall.
But why do the teens come back month after month, spending their free time with the elderly instead of at the mall? “They absolutely identify with the fact that it’s a mitzvah,” believes Klein.
“I like giving my time to help others,” says Andrew Brodsky, a Linking Hearts volunteer, “It makes me a better person.” Lindsay Haber, an active CTeen participant, says, “I love learning about my Jewish background and helping people at the same time.”
Rabbi Orenstein, who has close relationships with many of these young adults, empowers them to own the experience. So whether the month’s activity involves an art project or baking, it’s the teens who are planning, setting up, and taking charge. “It’s a kid-generated experience.”
At a time when most middle-schoolers and teenagers are preoccupied with their Snapchat stories or the latest Adidas shoe, Klein finds it a refreshing shift to see her son, who is also involved in the program, “slow down” and be committed to bringing joy to the elderly and the community at large. “It’s like a pause button for him. The seniors teach him to interact in a gentle and patient way.”
As much as the seniors appreciate the energy of the bright, young faces that come to visit, “it’s the kids and teenagers who really gain the most,” she acknowledges.
To learn more about Valley Chabad, visit www.valleychabadteens.com.