The Christmas holiday will mark two months since Hurricane Sandy made its way to the Jersey shore, and for many, times remain tough. But the young members of Congregation Beth Israel's youth group, Mitzvah Corps, won't let the holiday be forgotten.
On a recent Sunday night, the volunteers gathered to make their neighbors' Christmas wishes come true, supplying small gifts and creating festive stockings to be delivered to victims of the storm.
"There are so many people who were on the edge to begin with and have lost everything. And when you have lost everything, your priorities are different," said Susan Weis, the synagogue's youth adviser. "Christmas is a big deal, and we recognize that."
Each month during the school year, Mitzvah Corps, a group of young teens from grades six through eight, come together to take part in a mitzvah, or good deed. Weis explained that helping neighbors is something they are "commanded" to do.
In the past, the group has packaged Thanksgiving meals for MANNA, played bingo with residents of the Shalom House Retirement Homes and made sandwiches for local rescue missions.
"Sometimes it's inside the synagogue, sometimes it is out," Weis said of the organized good works. "Sometimes it's (for) the Jewish community, sometimes it's (for) the community at large."
The stocking-making event, an idea of Weis' husband, Rabbi David Weis, fulfilled December's theme, G'milut Chasidim, or acts of kindness, Weis said.
That night, about 10 volunteers walked through the Northfield synagogue's doors to decorate small Christmas stockings. They were later filled with an assortment of presents, from brightly colored socks or nail polishes to candy canes and stickers.
Marcy Randel, of Northfield, came with her son, Evan, 12, with Silly Putty and yo-yos in hand. The mother of two described the significance of giving back and how it has always been a priority in her own life.
"I always think that (community service) is important, and I feel like my kids need to participate as well," she said. "I think (the best lesson) is giving back to other people who are in need and the importance of that, (which is) understanding that there are other people who are out there who don't have as much as a lot of other people do."
Weis, who runs two other youth groups out of the congregation, Beth Israel Temple Youth, or BITY, for grades nine through 12 and Ity-BITY, for grades four through six, explained the many purposes the youth-group events serve.
Members of the congregation who are becoming a bar or bat mitzvah are obligated to participate in 18 hours of community service, she said. The hours are sometimes difficult to come by, and so Mitzvah Corps helps provide opportunities, she said.
Those opportunities often fall beyond the walls of the Jewish community, Weis said.
"People are people. People in need are people in need. We are commanded to help others, and it doesn't say only this kind or only that kind," she said. "If we can make a couple of kids a little happier and relieve the parents from the burden of ... worry about spending what they don't have, then we'll do that."
The stockings will be delivered to Jewish Family Service in Margate for its distribution through Toys for Tots, Weiss said. A group of stockings will be held to be delivered as personal requests from families in Egg Harbor Township and Somers Point.
Emerson Fischer, 11, a student at Belhaven Middle School, used glue to place sequins and a Santa face on a stocking that night.
"I think it'll make people happy to see that other people are there for them and that they can have a great Christmas," she said.
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