With their hands all but frozen, lips blue and feet soaking, nearly 50 South Bay teens and a large handful of adult volunteers braved the storm on Sunday, Dec. 5, to devote their afternoon to testing, cleaning and repairing bicycles.
The second of four Arachim programs, this event focused on tzedakah. Taking over the entire parking lot behind the Palos Verdes Bicycle Center, the volunteers worked on more than 125 bicycles that had been donated by community members for distribution to children at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services and several other local agencies.
"This ended up being a great community event," said Robin Franko, director of the Jewish Federation/South Bay Council. "We had more bicycles donated than we could have dreamed of and amazing support from local businesses."
Steve Bowen, Palos Verdes Bicycle Center owner, said, "We had been looking for ways to get involved in the community, to be good citizens. This project made us feel like we were helping out in a big way."
Bowen provided the space, tools, training and expertise that allowed the volunteers to refurbish the bicycles.
The goal of the Arachim program is to help teens discover the opportunities that exist in their neighborhoods and communities, where their contributions make a significant difference in the lives of other people. The unique project is being observed by numerous synagogues and may serve as a model for communities trying to develop similar programs.
Franko developed Arachim with five South Bay synagogues. Jewish teenagers in eighth and ninth grades meet youngsters from neighboring congregations, while learning about the obligation of mitzvot.
"The South Bay has an incredibly vibrant Jewish community," Franko said, "and one of my objectives as director for the past year has been to develop programs that will build cohesion and unity within this relatively large geographic area."
The South Bay encompasses about 35 miles, stretching along the Pacific from Westchester to San Pedro, and is home to nearly 40,000 Jews. It is estimated that only 20 percent are affiliated with South Bay synagogues. Franko said that programs such as Arachim help bring the unaffiliated together and give them a sense of the larger Jewish community.
Teens from B'nai Tikvah in Westchester; Congregation Ner Tamid (CNT), Palos Verdes; Congregation Tifereth Jacob, Manhattan Beach; Temple Beth El, San Pedro; and Temple Menorah, Redondo Beach are expected to be the primary participants, however, students from other synagogues or those unaffiliated with a synagogue are being encouraged to participate.
"We have a very dedicated group of synagogue educators planning these events," Franko said. "They've worked extremely hard to spread the word that kids from all over the South Bay are welcome to participate in these projects."
Many of the religious schools' teachers attended the event, fixing bicycles and supervising their students.
"This was an important activity for my class," said Adam Allenberg, a ninth-grade teacher at Congregation Ner Tamid and a rabbinic education student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. "In our last session, we discussed the meaning of tzedakah so that the kids would understand the context of the tradition."
The point was not lost on the students.
"This was one of the highest forms of tzedakah," said Mickey, one of Allenberg's students. "We don't know who will get the bikes, and the kids who get them don't know who gave them."
After the bicycle repairs were completed, Jeff Catania, Vista Del Mar vice president of development, spoke to the group about the children and teenagers who live at Vista Del Mar and the circumstances that brought them to the group home.
In October, more than 40 students gathered at Congregation Ner Tamid, which is located between a nursing home and a residential care facility, for the first Arachim program. Participants were provided an opportunity to perform two mitzvot: bikur holim (visiting the sick) and hiddur p'nei zakein (honoring the elderly).
"This program tapped into the kindness of our students," said Cheri Ellowitz-Silver, CNT education director. "The children were comfortable and compassionate, and the residents were visibly moved and delighted by their visit."
Prior to the event, the students participated in a classroom discussion about what these mitzvot mean, and why they are such an important tenet of Judaism.
"It was really neat," said Adina Knell, an eighth-grader from Manhattan Beach. "It made me feel good to help people in my own community, like I was making a difference."
Afterward, the students walked back to Ner Tamid for pizza and a social hour, before returning by bus to their area synagogues.
"The social aspect of these events is significant," Franko said, "and will be a part of all four projects. Again, the purpose of our program is twofold: to give these kids the opportunity to perform meaningful mitzvot and, equally as important, to provide them with a fun and comfortable atmosphere where they will develop strong friendships with other Jewish teens."
Two more Arachim activities have been scheduled for next year. On Jan. 30, teens will learn about teshuvah (repentance) and sh'mirat ha-guf (respect for one's body). The students will visit Beit T'Shuvah in West Los Angeles, a residential treatment facility and an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Beit T'Shuvah provides emotional and spiritual healing to Jews with addictive and behavioral disorders.
On April 17, the students will perform their final mitzvah for the school year, ma-achil r'ayvim (feeding the hungry). They will work at the Project Needs food bank in Redondo Beach, helping to stock shelves and prepare Passover baskets for Jewish families in need of assistance.
The Arachim program is open to all eighth- and ninth-grade students, regardless of synagogue affiliation. For more information or to become involved as an adult volunteer, call Robin Franko, (310) 375-0863.