Mural Mitzvah Breaks Down Walls


Confirmation students at a South Jersey synagogue played hooky last week to paint a mural at their "adopted" elementary school in Camden.

Cherry Hill and Camden, N.J., are only nine miles apart but the differences between the two cities can be difficult to brush over.

Yet students from Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill and the Henry L. Bonsall Elementary School in Camden did just that last week when the two groups joined together to paint a mural at the elementary school.

Over the last two years, the synagogue’s 10th grade Confirmation classes have chosen to work with students at Bonsall as their mitzvah project. The synagogue has, in effect, adopted the elementary school, kindergarten through eighth grade, said Rena Alpert, director of lifelong learning at Temple Emanuel.

In addition to painting the mural, Temple Emanuel students have prepared breakfast meals for Camden students to take home when they are on vacation, collected books that are delivered to their homes during the summer and created birthday bags so the students have favors to celebrate.

More meaningful than what they were creating last week, several people said, was the process itself, during which the students intermingled and learned about one another.

“When we travel the nine miles, it’s a whole different world,” said Rabbi Jerome David of Temple Emanuel. It’s valuable to see that the Camden students are not much different  but face “challenges that we can’t even imagine. The challenge of hunger. Were it not for the fact that the meals were provided here, breakfast and lunch, there are many kids that would go hungry.”

The elementary school building has barred windows because of its location in a city with some of the highest crime and murder rates in the country. Inside on the day of the project, the students spent the morning transforming a hallway into a more serene place, painting a lush, green landscape of trees, plants, clouds and a sun on a wall.

Julie Benbassat, a Temple Emanuel student, took the day off from Cherry Hill East High School for the project. She was painting next to an elementary school student and learned about his pets, an interaction she said she appreciated and wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for such community service. 

“Stereotypically, you think the kids are dangerous, but these kids are wonderful,” said Benbassat. “I’m missing school for this, but in school they don’t teach you much about how to interact with humans. They just teach you about math and science and history. They don’t teach about the real world per se.” 

The activity was also connected to Temple Emanuel’s No Place for Hate program. The Anti-Defamation League recently honored the synagogue’s religious school for its commitment to creating inclusive environments and challenging bullying; it was the only synagogue school in the tri-state area to receive such a designation.

“I would say that whenever you can improve the level of understanding between people and break down any kind of stereotype, that reduces hate,” David said, connecting the mural project with the synagogue’s overall emphasis on promoting tolerance.

Students at Bonsall submitted sketches for consideration, and the mural was a compilation of several ideas. Barbara Gail has taught art at both Temple Emanuel and Bonsall for more than 20 years and facilitated the connection between the two schools.

“Children are children,” said Gail. “The whole point of this, of having these kids come together, is to realize that we’re all really much more alike than we are different.”


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