JTeam: Teaching Our Children to Hold a Place for the World in Their Hearts

By Laura Safran  

“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”  Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:21

As a complicated world bombards us with competing messages and messengers, it’s natural for young people to feel overwhelmed, tempted to shut out all the noise. 

We, and they, must stay engaged.

One of those opportunities is the Federation’s JTeam Teen Philanthropy. This leadership development program gives teens the means and responsibility to make meaningful impact in the world. JTeamers pool their dollars with matching funds from the Jewish Federation and spend the year learning about philanthropy, identifying issues in the community, and making real-life decisions about grant-making to help those in need.

It can be an emotional experience that puts things in perspective for teens. Getting to say yes and having to say no is both exhilarating and sobering. Sarah Cehelyk and Maya Kurzman are two teens who know the emotional balancing act required to make seemingly impossible but necessary decisions involved in tikkun olam, repairing the world. These young girls met in JTeam’s 2016-2017 class and ended up working together to leverage time and money on behalf of their JTeam grant recipient. Read their story.

Sarah sums it up eloquently as she recounts her experience as a project leader in JTeam: 

“I had a general idea from watching my parents and other adults I respected in synagogue about how we practice tikkun olam, repairing the world. But it was only after I joined JTeam that I felt the true weight of the responsibility to help others – there are so many people who need our help and so much to do and at first it felt overwhelming.” 

Anyone could understand how a young person might turn away from such a daunting task. But Sarah and her other JTeam partners didn’t even consider it. She continues: 

“But throughout the exercise of researching and assessing and deciding, my new friends on JTeam and I didn’t stay stuck in feeling overwhelmed. Thanks to the program and our mentors, we quickly went from feeling overwhelmed to feeling determined to feeling empowered. And then there was that day when we got to deliver the grants and wow, that was a feeling of exhilaration and profound gratitude. We did what we could with what we had and it made a difference.”

What can we learn from Sarah and other JTeam members? 

The years may roll on and the noise makers may look and sound different, but we know, we know that this is not a new dilemma for us. We must not stop from our work of improving the world and we must not only do our part, but engage others as allies and partners.

Recently, the Federation had the privilege of hosting Leigh Anne Tuohy, made famous by the movie The Blind Side, at our Main Event on June 20th. Tuohy is the matriarch of a family who took in Michael Oher, a young man who was in and out of the foster care system. Oher quickly became part of the family and thrived, going on to become a Super Bowl-winning football star in the NFL. 

In the movie and in Tuohy’s own stories, there’s a famous scene of the night her family saw Oher, alone, wearing shorts on a 40-degree winter night. Tuohy is often quoted for saying, “Turn around the car.”  That was her moment of clarity – the moment she accepted responsibility for seeing another’s need and answering that need. That scene has become a call-to-action for many, reaffirming our obligation to stay engaged and do our part to help the vulnerable in our community. 

We are also obliged to ‘turn around the car’ and embrace our moment of clarity. More than that, we must raise another generation of Jews who accept this responsibility and who are equipped intellectually and emotionally to fulfill their obligation to repair the world. 

We must pass along this willingness to help one another. It’s why we gather at events like The Main Event and celebrate those who set the example and offer empowerment programs, such as JTeam for teens -- though sometimes it might seem easier to simply drive past that shivering child on the roadside. 

I feel strongly that we should work together to connect our youth with programs like JTeam so the next generation may experience their own moment of clarity and declare, “Today, I will not look away.”

Do you or a teen you know want to learn how JTeam is a special opportunity to make the world a better place? Applications for the 2017-2018 program are open NOW. Visit www.jewishheartnj.org/teens and submit your application. 


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