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Helping Lawyers Help Juvenile Offenders

July 31, 2014 By:
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Natalie Oppenheimer

Mitzvah Hero: Wynnewood’s Natalie Oppenheimer, 20, has devoted her summer to helping children with troubled pasts make meaningful contributions to society through her internship at Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY).

What It’s All About: The Barrack Hebrew Academy graduate and rising junior at Wellesley College, where she is a double major in psychology and Spanish, discovered PALY through the Tribe 12 Fellowship, a social entrepreneurial program designed to help young Jewish professionals build socially conscious start-ups. She emailed Elana Bauer, the Tribe 12 fellow who had founded the organization with the goal of assisting youth who have been through the juvenile justice system to re-enter society. 

Bauer "immediately brought me onboard and has allowed me to get more involved than I had even thought possible," Oppenheimer says, adding that she's doing far more than the expected "intern-y" things like paperwork and phone calls. Instead, with the assistance of agency co-founders Bauer, Maheen Kaleem and Lauren Ascher, she’s been helping write grant proposals and developing training for PALY’s incoming law students, who will undergo a 13-week course in “sensitivity training and lessons in the challenges of youth re-entry."

Not a One-Time Thing: “Since I was very young, my parents have impressed upon me the importance of doing mitzvot,” the Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El congregant says, referring to mom Mindy and dad David. “I still have  memories of long drives to Northeast Philadelphia every month, where my family would go to Jewish Relief Agency  to help pack up and deliver food.” 

In high school, she helped lead the Human Rights Club and took part in community service as an assistant with a first-grade class at Gompers Elementary School. Oppenheimer adds that she's also encouraged by her grandfather’s belief that “every day is a blessing.”

Good for Her: “I think mitzvot can be active, but it can also be a frame of mind,” reasons Oppenheimer. “My experiences with PALY have taught me that although my world is constantly expanding as I learn about new issues and meet new people, there is still so much I have not experienced." 

For example, she says, she learned through her summer position that more than half of youth in detention have not completed the 8th grade. But instead of "feeling sad or confused or angry," about this kind of staggering statistic, she considers what she can do to make a difference. 

"I have the power to help change the facts, to become an advocate and instrument for change, to help improve the lives of others.”

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