JERUSALEM – It’s a bright, cool afternoon at Jerusalem’s Charles E. Smith Experimental High School for Boys, known locally simply as “Hartman” after the institute and Jewish think tank that houses it. A group of 10th grade boys are horsing around on the basketball court, careful to avoid the stacks of food parcels that they’ve stayed after school to help distribute to needy residents ahead of the Passover holiday.

The spectacle of teenagers volunteering their time for service projects such as this might be a rarity in some quarters, but here, it is part of the school curriculum. All Hartman students are required not only to study the Torah’s principles of charity, but also to put those lessons into practice. Today, they’re teaming up with Colel Chabad, a Chabad-Lubavitch run social welfare network founded in 1788 by the First Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, to staff its Jerusalem distribution center.

According to Rabbi Mendy Blau, director of Colel Chabad’s Israel programs, the partnership achieves the best fusion possible of book knowledge with practical experience.

“This is one of the top high schools in Jerusalem,” he says. “Every class in the school is required not only to study the Torah’s messages of charity and giving, but also to internalize the messages by volunteering in a host of service initiatives.”

Blau says the partnership with the school is a year-round endeavor, and one that he would find hard to believe if he did not see it with his own eyes.

“These kids’ commitment to chesed is total,” he explains, using a Hebrew word sometimes translated as “loving-kindness” or “benevolence.” “I’ve watched them come in during the summer vacation to make sure that needy people continue to receive the goods we provide. Not only that, but several years ago, when we had trouble navigating the bureaucracy at City Hall to obtain funding for this project, the boys went out and raised money themselves to support the food bank. You can tell it is much more than a school requirement. The notion of giving to others is truly a part of their makeup.”

A 10th grader at the “Hartman” school readies boxes for distribution.
A 10th grader at the “Hartman” school readies boxes for distribution.

By the Numbers

Colel Chabad’s Jerusalem center is just one of its dozens of similar operations around the country. Each month, the organization provides some 5,000 food baskets to needy families around Israel, including dry goods, canned vegetables, pasta, oil, meat and more. For the holidays, that number spikes to approximately 14,000 parcels.

On Passover, the assistance amounts to a large box of dry and canned goods; a second full box of fruit and vegetables; enough matzah to last through the holiday; cleaning supplies for pre-Passover preparations; and a 100 shekel voucher for meat redeemable at major supermarket chains.

Families also receive cartons of grape juice to ensure that they’ll be able to fulfill the Seder requirement of drinking four cups of wine.

Each parcel is valued at 450 shekels, bringing Colel Chabad’s Passover assistance budget to some 6.3 million shekels, or $1.7 million. Recipients are chosen by local social workers in each city, who review applications for assistance and verify need requirements.

Rabbi Blau stresses that the importance of this last point.

“Once professional case workers have determined genuine need,” he says, “there are no more questions asked. We give to Ashkenazim and Sefardim, religious and non-religious people. Need is our only criterion.”

Although the reality of the situation is sobering – Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorest cities and the faces of many recipients bespeak a deep frustration at having to accept charity to make it through one of Judaism’s most important holidays – the Hartman students do their best to inject some cheer into the distributions. They are an exuberant bunch, and Passover songs, clowning around and dancing fill the atmosphere.

Adin Mauer, a 15-year-old from the town of Efrat, a 20 minute drive away, says that his effort to lug boxes pays off in several ways.

“There’s the physical work of shlepping boxes, but then there’s a spiritual side to it as well,” he explains. “That’s really the goal for me, to turn the physical workout I get carrying boxes into a spiritual experience. And it is. It really is.”

Jerusalemite Matan Wiener, also 15, agrees.

“The Talmud says that if you give poor people money, it’s good. But if you give them food, it’s even better.

“Then there’s an even higher level,” he adds. “If you can manage to help people in need, to really give them a part of yourself, then that’s the best level of charity of all. It’s really the essence of life, isn’t it?”