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Citizens Bank Helps Build Bridges for Social Justice

February 15, 2007 By:
Jan L. Apple, JF Feature
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A teenage volunteer from Beth Israel reads to children from the Chester shelters in a special story corner during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service held at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford.

Less than a mile down the road from Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford is the city of Chester, home to three shelters run by the Community Action Agency of Delaware County where mothers and children in need of four walls, food and tender care find temporary refuge.

Through the Mitzvah Projects Task Force, an arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Social Responsibility, Citizens Community Bridge funding was provided to the social action committees of Ohev Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel of Media to provide shelter residents with the opportunity to partake in recreational activities that they otherwise could not enjoy. For some 60 moms and their children, such acts of kindness and generosity by their neighbors have meant a world of difference.

Citizens Community Bridge, a partnership formed in September 2005, represents the shared vision of Citizens Bank Foundation and Federation. A $250,000 grant, to be used over a two-year period, supports new initiatives and expands existing programs to help families in need throughout the Greater Philadelphia region.

Boosting social action and service was one of six areas identified for funding by Citizens Community Bridge. With a $70,000 investment, hundreds of children and teens in synagogue and supplementary school programs and youth groups have been able to effect change through community service.

Sylvia Bronner, Citizens Bank senior vice president, public affairs, explains that boosting social action and volunteerism is at the heart of their organization. "The bank organizes a lot of volunteer-run events in the community," said Bronner. "Our credo is that Citizens Bank has a commitment to our customers, our colleagues and our community." Bronner says that many employees bring their children along to these events, as they want to serve as role models and mentors. "If you can help a child to participate at the grassroots level and they can see the actual impact of their efforts, many times you are inspiring them to remain engaged throughout their lifetime."

"Last year, Federation managed a request for proposal process which disbursed over $26,000 to fund seven social action programs for community groups," explained David Rosenberg, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility. "In December, the remaining funds were allocated to support 12 additional programs for 2007."

Recipients of services are grateful to Federation and Citizens Community Bridge for supporting outreach. Fran Stier, social action chair of Ohev Shalom, and Louis Friedler, social action chair of Beth Israel, coordinate recreational programming for residents of the Chester shelters."We have been able to do things for these families that have truly made a difference in their lives," said Stier. "We have about 100 volunteers -- children through seniors -- who give of their time. Once a year, during winter break, we provide bus transportation from the shelters to a local bowling alley where volunteers bowl with families from the shelters." Then the group returns to Ohev Shalom where everyone enjoys a plentiful lunch.

"These are poor families with very little living right next door to us," said Stier, who has witnessed children's eyes light up in appreciation. "Even simple things are a real treat for them." The group also visited Linvil- la Orchards where they took a hayride and fed farm animals. "Many of these children had never been to a petting zoo before," said Stier.

Other activities included participating in the Martin Luther King Day of Service, when congregants from both synagogues joined with shelter residents for a day of activities. "They baked cookies and played board games," recalled Stier. "The response from the volunteers and recipients has been wonderful. These children are teaching our congregation members a lot."

"Citizens Community Bridge funding has been helpful in advancing the social action initiative that is an integral part of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility," said Rosenberg. "The fact that we are able to fund programs that involve numerous volunteers throughout the region strengthens people's engagement in social action, which ultimately strengthens our community."

Another funding recipient also strives to inspire youth through community service. Beth Margolis Rupp, director of the Service Learning and Leadership Institute at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, and colleague Suzanne Wolfenson oversee the Seasons of Service program with Lisa Sandler of The Community Youth Initiative of the JCCs.

"Seasons of Service is a community vision," explained Rupp. "We bring Jewish youth together with meaningful community service year-round." Rupp says their multi-faceted programming engages eighth to 12th graders -- whether they are observant Jews, unaffiliated, loosely affiliated or secular -- in civic issues.

One recent sukkat shalom -- shelter of peace -- program, "Conversation and Community Service," was held at Thanksgiving time at Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron in Havertown. "We brought together Jews, Christians and Muslims with the theme of welcoming the stranger," said Rupp. "The program was very meaningful and participants learned a lot about other cultures. We can build upon that."

They also expanded their Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service as youth volunteers worked with Variety--The Children's Charity (formerly the Variety Club) and the Haverford School to host a "Caring Community Carnival."

"We involved many children with special needs from Variety and the Jewish community," explained Rupp. "Through our activities, we are strengthening our relationship with the secular community in the hope that they will view us as allies. We share the same vision."

For the coming year, Rupp is thrilled that funding will allow for expansion of the "Food for Thought" program, which supports the JCCs "Cook for a Friend" program. Funding will also enable collaboration between youth and SeniorCHAI, Federation's supportive-services program for seniors in the Bustleton and Somerton neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia. "We plan to bring our youth into the homes of elderly," said Rupp. "We want them to find ways to help them age with dignity while remaining in their homes."

And at Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, director of education Gloria Eiseman says that funding enabled the seventh-grade "Mitzvah Monday" class to take flight. "Students now feel closer to the Jewish community and think about helping others by performing mitzvot," said Eiseman.

According to teacher Orli Shmueli: "In my 12 years of teaching, I have been involved in many mitzvah projects but never on such a large scale. We were able to reach out to hundreds in the community. Whether making baby blankets, wrapping baskets for boarding homes or conducting a mitten and scarf drive, I know that my students had an enriching experience. I have never seen seventh-graders so eager to come to school.

"To see the excitement in their faces, as they formulated and executed projects with such drive and passion, is priceless. Through their acts of lovingkindness, I know that they felt empowered to do tikkun olam -- making the world a better place."

For more information, call David Rosenberg at 215-832-0850.


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