The year 2002 was an important one for Daniel Rothner. That was the year that Rothner, who lives and works in northern New Jersey, became the founder and director of Areyvut. Headquartered in Bergen County, Areyvut is a non-profit organization which creates CommUNITY and stands on the three pillars of the core Jewish values, chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam.
Currently, Areyvut is celebrating a milestone, its 20th year of innovative programming. In those two decades of service to the community, Areyvut has grown from a small local organization to one whose work impacts well over 200 organizations and countless individuals annually.
Areyvut programs include chesed fairs, Jewish teen philanthropy, mitzvah clowning, national mitzvah day, mitzvah projects, tikkun olam tours, summer programs, presentations and workshops, programs in Jewish day schools, synagogue schools, community centers, synagogues, communal institutions and individual families. Areyvut’s “A Kindness a Day” calendar reached over 40,000 people last year. And Areyvut is widely recognized as a thoughtful program partner, one that develops meaningful programs and resources that can easily be accessed to engage others to action.
In an interview with The Jewish Link, Rothner discussed Areyvut’s history, and his vision for its future.
“Prior to founding Areyvut, I taught for four years in middle school. A highlight of my experience was developing and implementing several special programs in school for students and outside of school for parents and their children. These programs aimed to foster strong engagement with the core Jewish values of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam. The response from students and parents was incredibly positive. The programs were fun, meaningful and created Jewish ‘wow’ moments to last a lifetime. I started Areyvut in order to magnify that reach and impact, to encourage families, educators and community leaders to actively make these core values more central to contemporary Jewish life,” said Rothner.
“Areyvut was established to expand the horizons of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam. Everyone does chesed. In developing a program, you need to address what is the goal, the why, the objectives and what does success look like,” he continued. “There are tons of things that people can do to change things. Actively doing something is critically important but it must be done with responsibility, thoughtfulness and in a deliberate way to make a difference. … The goal of our work is to unify people. Doing chesed actively brings people together.”
Areyvut provides families opportunities to have experiences together that they would not normally have. Rothner said that “when parents talk about their values, volunteer, or do projects with their children, it can create teachable moments and memories for a lifetime.”
Celeste Albert, coordinator of teen programs at Jewish Family & Children’s Services (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County, agreed. Albert has utilized Areyvut’s resources, their “A Kindness A Day” calendar, participated in their National Mitzvah Day, is an avid fan of Areyvut’s social media content and has worked together with Rothner in planning and presenting at conferences focused on Jewish teen philanthropy.
“Every community needs an organization like Areyvut,” said Albert. “It is sometimes challenging to find volunteer opportunities for youth. Daniel and Areyvut have created ways to connect people of all ages with chesed and amazing nonprofits. Areyvut has inspired me to create a community service event for my children’s elementary school. The Sharon PTA, Sharon School and Student Council holds an annual program called Sharon Shines, where 1,000 pre-K to fourth graders engage in community service and learn about impactful community nonprofits.”
While over the years, Areyvut has matched Rothner’s vision for the organization, Rothner feels that there is still more to do. “I have been pleased with Areyvut’s impact and reach—and yet there is still so much more that we want to do. We constantly reflect on our programs and our work and try to best meet the needs of the community, and we are always thinking about how we can do even more,” Rothner said. “Even when programs go well we always think about what we could have done to make it even better to maximize the experience.”
Sara Weinberg, board member and more recently board president, said, “Daniel Rothner is always willing to explore new possibilities and to work with families and organizations to find chesed opportunities uniquely meaningful to them. … Areyvut’s mission, to inspire children and teenagers to get involved in their communities and to facilitate real opportunities for them to do so, is a unique one. There are many wonderful organizations in our community that fill very important needs, but they are not necessarily looking to include children and teenagers in their work. In fact, as a parent of young children, I know it can often be difficult to find chesed opportunities in which young children are permitted to participate. For families who want to instill in their children the value of community service and who want to show their children that even they have the power to meaningfully contribute to the world around them, Areyvut is there to provide chesed and community service opportunities.”
Future plans for Areyvut, Rothner said, include, “One: Tailored programming: We continue to offer ongoing and one-time programs and experiences. We will be relaunching mitzvah clowning, which has been on hiatus since COVID. This summer we will be implementing many grassroots family volunteer experiences to engage the commUNITY in actively doing good. These provide parents an opportunity to actively involve their children with Jewish values and why it is important to give back. Two: Chesed capacity-building services: As a result of a successful Chicago chesed tour we are planning similar tours to other cities with the goal of helping organizations actively reflect, increase their capacity, reach, impact and sense of commUNITY. We are also expanding our consulting services for organizations and schools to help them achieve their goals in the area of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam. Three: Educational materials and publications: We plan to publish a hard-copy edition of the 2024 “A Kindness a Day” calendar and we are looking to develop partnerships with local and national communal organizations to use the calendar as the foundation for meaningful and impactful programming. And we continue to create and share a wide range of educational materials for educators, parents and communal leaders to use to engage their students, children and all of their constituents.”
Asked by The Jewish Link what some of his favorite moments with Areyvut programs were, Rothner said, “It is deeply gratifying to know that our long-term programs including bnai mitzvah projects, teen philanthropy, mitzvah clowning, summer internship and now better together provide participants with skills that they can use the rest of their lives, and that a number of past participants have selected careers that actively help and give back in part because of their involvement in Areyvut.”
The starting point for describing what Areyvut is all about is the word “areyvut” and what it means. “The source for naming Areyvut comes from Shavuot 39a where it states “kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”—all Jews are accountable and responsible for one another. It is this sense of purpose that inspires Areyvut’s mission.
Rothner continued, “Another central element of Areyvut’s work is that we do not run cookie-cutter programs. All of our programs are customized and tailored to the needs of the participants, their age, ability and goals. What we envision arising from our work is individuals, communities and a world passionately committed to a deep sense of Areyvut or mutual responsibility.”
And the number of people attending a program at a particular venue is not what counts for Areyvut. Rather, as Rothner said, “We are for the community. Bring us to your schools and shuls. If you have nine people and someone saves a life from a skill learned at one of our programs, that is valuable, that’s powerful, that is impact.
“We treat everyone with respect and dignity. We work with Jews and non-Jews. We have incredible humbleness, appreciation and gratefulness for what we are able to do,” said Rothner, as he invited the community to come partner with Areyvut.
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.