Congregation Beth Israel in Media Helps Babies Thrive in Chester

A Better Start for Babies volunteers. Courtesy of ChesPenn

Leslie Feldman

When members of Congregation Beth Israel heard that new mothers cared for at the ChesPenn Center for Family Health in Chester didn’t have adequate items for their infants, they knew they had to help.

That’s how A Better Start for Babies was born two years ago and how it has grown ever since.

Led by John Greenstine, who chairs the synagogue’s Social Action Committee, a group of congregants met with clinic staff and pediatricians to develop a shopping list of most-needed items and began to raise donations and funds from synagogue members. In the first year, they assembled 30 bags that included diapers, thermometers, baby wipes, pacifiers and breastfeeding essentials.

The following year, they set the goal of doubling the number and got to 72. Last year, they enlisted two other synagogues — Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall and Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford — and hit 150.

This year, with additional support from a grant from the Foundation for Delaware County, the target is 200 or more, and they seem to be on course to achieve it.

Volunteers display supply bags for new mothers.
Courtesy of ChesPenn

“The number of new mothers needing this support at the clinic is about 150 each year. Obviously, it varies a bit over time,” Greenstine said. “We didn’t know during our first year that we’d be able to make as many bags as we did, but we now know that it probably didn’t cover more than the first few months of need.

“Doubling our effort in year two, while really challenging for us, also achieved just half of what was needed. Our 2022-2023 drive seems to have filled the need at the Eastside clinic. But there are needy mothers at the Upper Darby branch of ChesPenn as well as at their Coatesville clinic, and our current plans won’t stretch far enough to benefit those other mothers.”

With those growing needs, Greenstine reached out to other Delaware County synagogues. He was soon in touch with Lisa Karlin at Ohev Shalom and Ellen Glassman at CBENT.

“They were immediately interested in joining the effort. They have their own programs and ways of doing things, but they both found interest and energy among their members to support us with donations of goods and cash, and even knitters to make hand-made hats for the babies,” he added. “It’s been extremely helpful to have their support, especially with our successful community grant from the Foundation for Delaware County. I don’t know that we’d have received the grant without buy-in from Ohev and CBENT.”

Karlin explained that Ohev Shalom’s founding roots are in Chester, and the sacred task of tikkun olam inspires them to support that community, which includes an annual backpack-school supply drive, High Holiday food drive and turkey day drive, to name a few.

“We are excited to serve another population in Chester with A Better Start for Babies,” Karlin said. “Joining with Beth Israel to support newborns and their parents has been a meaningful way to connect with our neighbors in the Jewish community to serve a particularly vulnerable population.”

Their efforts are about as much as they believe they can now accomplish with their given resources.

Supply bags being delivered. Photo by John Greenstine

“We don’t have the space to store the items we gather; we’re stacking boxes in our living rooms and basements,” Greenstine said. “We are buying items online from Amazon, Target and Walmart, but we’re paying retail prices. We really need professional help with purchasing directly from manufacturers and distributors. And we need help with transportation.”

Even so, Greenstine hopes to expand the program to benefit new mothers at all three ChesPenn clinics.

“The current estimate is 250 or more,” he said. ”However, there are many other mothers in similar circumstances — some recent immigrants, some without money, homes, family support, English skills or jobs — in the Philadelphia area, and we aspire to someday benefit as many of those new families as we can.”

The Social Action Committee also is engaged in programs that try to help across Chester and Delaware County, including tutoring middle-school students in Chester and preparing dinners for homeless residents of the Life Center shelter in Upper Darby, something they’ve done for nearly 30 years. They are on a first-name basis with the staff of the Media Food Bank, where they take thousands of pounds of donated groceries every year.

“The A Better Start for Babies project is just another way our synagogue members have chosen to not just write a check, but get their hands into a solution, Greenstine said. “Bottom line is, our members have always extended our reach to our nearby community with our advocacy, our concern, and our effort.”

Leslie Feldman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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