The following essay on community service was written by Benjamin O’Connor, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; they also perform 13 hours of community service, and write about it. An example of this component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as their self confidence and overall maturity.
When I first talked to my mom and mentor about what kind of community service I could do in conjunction with my bar mitzvah, I was a bit stumped. There aren’t actually a lot of volunteer opportunities for kids my age, and very little I could do on my own. I decided to stick close to my interests, which are food, politics and sports.
My first community service activity was to attend the Women’s March earlier this year with my family. I was expecting to march in a crowd. But I did not expect it to be so crowded! It turned out to be a lot of passionate people marching for women’s rights. The actual marching/walking was slow, but I felt good to be part of a movement. I was surprised at how many people left halfway through the march, but I suppose the real point is that they showed up. In total there were 85,000 diverse people, both men and women, who registered to walk, but the actual number of people who came was much higher. I hope that this march had an impact on Washington and that because of the march, more people signed up to vote.
For my next community service activity, I went to a food pantry in a community center in central Harlem operated by Catholic Charities. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew beforehand was that I would be working with food. It turns out that people from the community can come to the pantry on certain days of the week, and on the other days, staff and volunteers sort the donations and prepare pantry bags. I started by taking apples out of boxes and putting them in bags, so when the people came to get their food they could just take a bag. I also did the same thing with potatoes and onions. After that, I sorted donations that the pantry got. Finally, I re-bagged onions and potatoes. I felt like I was helping people. I learned that there were food pantry days twice a week and that people could come twice a month to pick up food for themselves and their families. It is a lot of work to prepare for food pantry days, because food donations are delivered in large quantities or can be many types of food mixed together and have to be sorted and bagged into smaller quantities appropriate for giving to a household. Even though I was not there on a pantry day, I bagged a lot of food. That made me realize how much work it takes to give away food, and how many people in New York City struggle with hunger.
Also related to hunger, I participated in the JCC’s Operation Chicken Soup program. This brought teens together once a month after school to make food for people in need. Each time we made three entrees and one dessert. Later that day, the food was transported to a homeless shelter. I enjoyed the cooking, but I would have liked a more direct connection to the people we were helping.
For my final volunteer undertaking, I became a referee for the West Side Soccer League. I generally knew what to expect because my sister plays there, and I had watched her games. The training to become a referee was many hours long, and it was about the rules of the game. Since I was an assistant referee, I mostly called when the ball was out of play and it was sometimes very hard to decipher who hit it out. It felt like I was helping the West Side Soccer League by making games happen. Even though I was in a referee role, sometimes it was hard not to cheer when someone scored. The girls often demonstrated good sportsmanship and even helped people from opposing teams get up if they fell. I also noticed that no one who was on the sidelines displayed bad sportsmanship. By being a referee, I learned a lot about the game of soccer, about the role that referees play, and how much effort everyone involved puts in in order to make a community soccer league run.
In conclusion, it means a lot to me to help other people and help out the community. The community service that had the strongest impact on me was the work at the food pantry. Before I helped out at the food pantry, I knew that there were people in New York City who didn’t have enough food. But I didn’t realize that so many people had food insecurity. There are some people who are so desperate for food they will wait for the food pantry to open, outside in even harsh weather for long periods of time, which is a situation I could never imagine.
I hope that I will be able to do some more volunteering at the food pantry in the coming years. In the meantime, I plan to donate a portion of my bar mitzvah gifts to the Kennedy Center food pantry through the Catholic Charities Feeding our Neighbors program.