by Aviva Engel, Director of Communications
It’s the weekend, and while most students are thrilled to have a little break from school, Hebrew Academy Grade 11 student Nathaniel Ouazana eagerly returns to the building every Shabbat. There, for a little over an hour, Nathaniel leads Bnei Akiva, an international Zionist youth organization that runs fun, educational activities that promote a love of, and commitment to, the land of Israel. The unpaid position involves coordinating about a dozen counsellors, overseeing the programming, and caring for slews of Elementary School children who attend Bnei Akiva weekly.
Nathaniel’s been volunteering for the past three years as part of Hebrew Academy High School’s Chesed Program. His current position as Rosh (Head of) Bnei Akiva is one he particularly loves.
“I’m very proud to give my time and support Bnei Akiva,” he said. “I enjoy coming back to school each weekend and seeing the children with smiles on their faces, having a great time while learning valuable lessons and connecting with Israel.”
At the core of Hebrew Academy’s mission, Chesed is such an integral school value that it constitutes a segment of High School seniors’ curriculum. As part of their graduation requirements, grades 9 through 11 students must perform a minimum of 20 hours of community service during the school year and are encouraged to donate even more of their time if they can.
“Chesed activities are an essential part of the student experience at Hebrew Academy from the time that the children are in preschool,” said High School Principal Dr. Laura Segall. “Whether it is visiting with the elderly or helping out at MADA, our very youngest students do so readily and with much enthusiasm. What becomes exciting when they reach the upper high school grades is to see these same children become active leaders in many of our local charitable organizations.
In order to support and facilitate students’ volunteerism, Hebrew Academy’s Community Learning Centres (CLC) Coordinator Tia Ayrton recently organized a school Chesed Fair, featuring representatives from Beit Halochem, MADA, Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Synagogue, Chabad of the Town and the Eleanor London Côte Saint-Luc Public Library – just a few of Hebrew Academy’s partner organizations.
At the start of the fair, Judaic Studies Department Head and Dean of Jewish Life Rabbi Eddie Shostak highlighted the significance of chesed in the context of the recent holidays.
“After the entire process of Elul, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, on Sukkot Hashem invites us into His rickety shack to partner with Him to transform our imperfect and sometimes rickety world into something lasting and beautiful. When we perform acts of chesed, whether using our time, ourselves, our minds or our possessions, we partner with Hashem in that same goal. And there is another dimension to acts of chesed, namely, not only to give, but also to transform ourselves into givers,” said Rabbi Shostak.
Presenting on behalf of the Eleanor London Côte Saint-Luc Public Library, Manager of Community and Family Services Valerie Medzalabanleth underscored teen volunteers’ valuable contributions to the library “and our community more generally.”
“[Young volunteers] help make a difference in the lives of our younger library users all while learning some wonderful mentoring and leadership skills,” said Medzalabanleth. “They also help us develop our teen services – we are a library for the people, and they help shape the department, and the library more generally, with their ideas and their initiatives.”
Hebrew Academy’s Chesed Program was created to enable students to practice Tikkun Olam; develop peer leadership and mentoring skills; increase social sensitivity; understand and accept civic responsibility; develop personally, including in the domains of self-image and confidence; and to inspire lifelong volunteerism.
“Part of our role as educators is to prepare our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow,” said Dr. Segall. “It fills me with confidence for the future of our community when I see the seriousness and the care with which these young adults take on these responsibilities.”