YEP! kids pack bags to donate for homeless people in Greater Phoenix.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, famously said, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make, which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

Over the past few weeks, students in Congregation Kehillah’s Youth Education Program (YEP!) have been taking that sentiment to heart while they have been learning what it means to treat every human being as equal and created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d.

Sometimes it is hard to remember we are all children of the same parent, G-d, when we see others who are very different from us and live different experiences than us. In a recent session of YEP!, our middle schoolers focused on the homeless in our own Maricopa County, which has roughly 7,500 homeless, not including hidden homeless people — individuals or families who live with other families or friends.

The kids learned about stereotypes of the homeless population with a true or false game and then got ready to do a mitzvah: Middle school students wrote short positive notes to include in hygiene bags and then they assembled 40 bags with combinations of socks, shaving cream, soap, shampoo, lotion, deodorant, candy, granola bars, goldfish, washcloths, toothpaste and toothbrushes, floss, etc. Kehillah donated all of it to Mom’s Pantry, a charitable organization fighting hunger.

According to Jacqueline Schatzberg, a YEP! sixth grader, “When we were learning about b’tzelem Elohim we talked a lot about homelessness in our area. I was excited to find out that I could do something to help make a difference in my community. This project made me really feel created in the image of G-d. G-d made miracles and these bags for the homeless were a miracle for them. After the mitzvah project, I felt very happy. I felt this because I knew that I was doing something good for someone.”

Seventh-grade twins, Brian and Eli Hemmert, also participated in the project. “We think it is very special to help people who are truly in need. We are sharing our fortunate blessings with the people who are less fortunate.” Brian and Eli’s mom, Cari Brodsky, said, “I am so proud of them for achieving another mitzvah.”

As a YEP! teacher, I, too, loved planning the program with my students. Seeing our students light up knowing they were doing a mitzvah was incredible. Every student was engaged, thoughtful and had a wonderful time. What made our project truly special was that YEP! students learned not only the importance of helping the homeless and needy in our community, but why it is important to do so: because every one of us is created b’tzelem Elohim and we have responsibilities to our families, our synagogue, our communities, our state and our country.

Prior to the mitzvah project, students wrestled with the idea of what it means that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim. If we do not believe that G-d has a human form, what can it mean to be created in the image of G-d? The students discussed different qualities that G-d has that we can emulate — kindness, strength, doing what is right, caring for one another, thinking and using the minds that G-d gave to us and more.

Along the way, the students had an opportunity to brainstorm questions they have for G-d. Some of the questions asked included: Why does G-d create viruses? Why did G-d create mosquitoes? How did G-d come to be?

YEP! teachers love and encourage these types of questions, and are proud of their students for thinking critically and having giant hearts. As children of Israel, it is our heritage to question, wrestle with God and ask hard questions.

Part of what was so powerful about this unit is that our students learned that sometimes we can be mad at God, and that is perfectly kosher and OK; we get mad sometimes with those we love. The important part is recognizing we have a relationship and working to make it stronger.

Mitzvah projects like this one help bring our community together and remind us that there is so much good we can do in this world and in our own communities at home.

One of Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman’s favorite quotes is “Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

Yasher koach YEP! middle schoolers! JN

Erica Erman is Congregation Kehilla’s YEP! middle school program’s Judaica, music and tefillah teacher. She is also one of Congregation Kehillah’s two cantorial soloists.