By Cheryl Conway
Teens throughout the area are getting in on the action by preparing meals for the homeless, donating to food drives for the local pantry and collecting outer gear to warm those living on the streets or in shelters.
The group called Social Teen Action Fellows just formed this fall through the Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation in Roxbury. About six teens, both pre and post bar and bat mitzva students, participate in this community action work for social justice.
The teens have been joining about 20 individuals affiliated with this congregation who gather at members’ homes to prepare meals and collect items to help those in need once a month for the past three years.
On Sun., Nov. 6, the group delivered gloves, hats and scarves to St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City. Some members crocheted “gorgeous hats,” and scarves were made from cut winter flannel materials and fleece, describes Rabbi Debra Smith of Parsippany, religious leader at Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation. “Members cut them and prepare them,” she says.
Providing meals also is a priority. Its next gathering is set for Sun., Dec. 4, to prepare more meals.
“Each first Sunday every month we make and deliver 175 meals to St. Lucy’s Shelter in Jersey City,” says Smith who is known as “Reb Deb.” All vegetarian meals, including sandwiches, salads and desserts are prepared and delivered by members.
Smith got connected with the shelter through Zamir Hassan, national organizer of the Faiths Against Hunger, when she heard him speak years back.
“We used to seek out homeless people in Jersey City,” says her husband, Neil Smith, a retired mohel who helps lead the services through his music. “Most would reside at the shelter. We made the connection that the same people are going to the shelter. It’s much more efficient.”
The congregation also constantly collects and provides food to the Roxbury Food Pantry. Volunteers are currently collecting items for Thanksgiving meals such as cranberry sauce, stuffing and yams, says Smith.
“Our mission in addition to prayer is to serve the community,” says Smith. “You serve without bias. When our people bring food to the shelter, they don’t just drop it off, they go in.”
Smith, a long-time resident of Long Valley, began Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation in 2013. She selected Succasunna as the congregation’s gathering place because of its central location to multiple towns seeking new denomination in Judaism, she says. The closest congregations of this denomination are in Monmouth and Philadelphia.
Or Ha Lev, which means “light of the heart,” is a new denomination in Judaism sought by individuals that “are just not satisfied with traditional forms that are out there,” explains Smith.
Its ideals come out of Hasidic Judaism, she explains, but “you wouldn’t recognize it. It uses traditional Judaism in terms of prayer, holidays and beliefs but has unique elements in prayer life. We do a lot a meditation, chanting, drumming, our services are musical. It’s presented in a very energetic and unique way.”
The congregation has grown from 12 individuals to 40 family members. The growing group forced her to move her services from her family room in her house to rented space at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Succasunna. For Passover last year, Smith organized an interfaith Seder for 60 people at the church.
“Part of my mission is to work in the interfaith community,” says Smith. “It’s called deep ecumenism which is a philosophy of engaging in other faith groups, build relationships and make this a healthier place.”
Friday night services are held at 7:30 at the church, and Shabbat services are held one Saturday per month. Smith also provides individual instruction as far as Hebrew school lessons, adult education classes one Sunday a month and an adult Hebrew class. Without a building fund, dues are kept low with members paying $300 per person to join or $600 per family, says Smith. Annual dues include attendance to all of the High Holiday services.
The congregation “had a huge turnout” this year, says Smith, who attended rabbinical school for five years at Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal and has a masters in Jewish studies from Gratz College, both in Philadelphia. “We had many, many people who called who came.”
Family members come from “all over” including surrounding areas such as Randolph, Mt. Olive, Chester, Morristown, Hackettstown, Netcong and Morris Plains.
For more information or to join, go to orhalevnj.org; call Smith at 908-303-8374; or email her at email@example.com.