Livingston’s Congregation Etz Chaim has been hard at work this year, seeking out innovative ways to keep its members united despite the pandemic. In addition to the appointment of new youth directors and an assistant rabbi, Rabbi Sam Klibanoff recently welcomed Miriam and Benji Dessau to the community as ambassadors for NCSY’s MetroWest chapter.
Recently married, Miriam and Benji are eager to represent the shul within the larger MetroWest Jewish community.
Miriam began her career as an advisor for NCSY MetroWest during her sophomore year at college, where she later worked full time after graduating. The job afforded her a host of opportunities to work with teens and learn what they’re passionate about. She dedicates much of her time to the Jewish Student Union (JSU), a branch of NCSY that sponsors educational programs for Jewish students in public high schools. She’s especially proud of her work in NCSY’s Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), which takes Jewish public high school students on a transformative four-week tour in Israel.
Miriam said, “Seeing these teens experience Israel and learn about their own Judaism is a springboard of inspiration for myself for the year.”
In addition to providing educational activities for Jewish teenagers, NCSY sponsors relief missions, assembling volunteers across the MetroWest community to give back to other communities. She explained that “one of the reasons why our Relief Missions are so successful is because of the bond that is created between teens over doing chesed.” She believes that there’s much to learn from those in need of assistance, as their stories can generate an entirely new perspective on life.
Miriam is dedicated to providing experiential learning to these teenagers, who often have little to no knowledge about their own religion. Miriam and other dedicated NCSY workers join these students on their “Jewish journey,” however far along they may be.
Benji started community work as a teenager in high school, participating in the Bnei Akiva youth leadership and empowerment training in his hometown of Edison. During college, he joined NCSY as an advisor for the West Orange chapter, where he solidified his skills in community involvement and met his future spouse, Miriam.
“The skills I have obtained through community work have helped shape me into the role model and Jewish leader I am today, and that plays a big role in being an Etz Chaim ambassador,” Benji said.
The couple moved in around the Yomim Noraim and were received warmly by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Klibanoff and the Etz Chaim community.
“Amidst all the uncertainty, isolation and lack of face-to-face interactions,” Benji explained, “my wife and I have had a very smooth transition into the community.”
In addition to studying at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Benji has enjoyed playing an active role in the Etz Chaim community. He participated in the chazan training program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, where he gained new insights on how to lead during the Yomim Noraim.
“Rabbi Klibanoff offered me the opportunity because he saw great potential in me and wanted me to learn the proper skills in perfecting my chazanut abilities,” Benji explained.
During this pandemic, many shuls have searched for community members to step up and lead the tefilot, so his involvement is invaluable for Etz Chaim. Benji also joined Etz Chaim’s leining schedule, serving as Bal Kriah for Shabbat minyans. This has given him the chance to properly introduce himself to fellow congregants, who applaud his devotion to the minyan.
Rabbi Klibanoff said that “in a short time, they have already established themselves as a most wonderful addition to the Etz Chaim community.”
Although many of Miriam’s JSU clubs and programs have transitioned to virtual platforms due to the pandemic, they are still meaningful. As she explained, “Running virtual programs has encouraged me to be more creative with the lessons and activities that we run.”
All in-person programs are run outdoors, following all necessary health guidelines. As winter approaches, outdoor activities are becoming more difficult to run, yet Miriam has risen to the challenge. She described that now more than ever, it has been crucial to take input from the teenagers in order to make the learning opportunities both fun and meaningful.
As Benji explained, “We are blessed to have this opportunity to make new friends, to network with local members of the community and to begin building our future here together.”