The Baltimore Chesed League (BCL) provides Jewish boys in Baltimore the opportunity to engage in meaningful “chesed-focused” service activities (chesed is the Jewish term for an act of kindness). BCL Founder Dovi Ziffer recently spoke to Kol HaBirah about BCL’s origins and what lies ahead.
Can you provide a bit of background about yourself?
I’m 36 years old and have lived in Baltimore for 23 years. My wife, Atara, is originally from Silver Spring, and we live in the Ranchleigh neighborhood of Baltimore with our three children: Avigail (11), Kivi (9), and Noam (4).
Atara and I both grew up in homes devoted to community involvement and chesed. My father, Rabbi Larry Ziffer, worked as a Jewish communal professional for close to 40 years before retiring last year. My mother, Flo Ziffer, has taught elementary school Judaic studies for more than 40 years. Atara’s parents, Abe and Sue Zwany, are pillars of the Silver Spring Jewish community and are active in many organizations.
How did the Baltimore Chesed League start?
The BCL started as an idea in early 2017. Working with the BCL committee, a group of talented community members, we found that while multiple programs existed to involve and engage girls in chesed activities, far fewer opportunities existed for boys. The BCL was created to hopefully address that need in a meaningful and creative way.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I remember that many chesed or volunteer programs for boys when I was growing up seemed to lack direction and planning. For example, I remember attending a day camp where we would occasionally be dropped off at a nursing home facility, but we received almost no practical instruction or guidance on how to interact with the residents. As young adults, we found those experiences intimidating, and what could have provided a meaningful introduction to chesed was instead wasted as a negative and uncomfortable chore.
In creating the BCL, we wanted to do better. We think it’s crucial to find ways to engage our children in helping community organizations so that once they grow up, they will already be familiar with the organizations’ missions and roles, and be much more prepared to step in and help.
But to really motivate our kids, we need to be realistic about what speaks to them and how to excite them. We knew there had to be an effective way to frame and present chesed experiences in a positive, fun light. Knowing that so many boys in our community already participate in local athletics and feel comfortable in a sports league format, we began to develop our vision of the BCL to include multiple teams, a competitive, incentive-based framework, motivated coaches, uniforms, and more.
Can you elaborate on how the league works?
The league is run under the auspices of local shul [synagogue], Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim, and is open to boys between grades five and eight. Participating boys are divided into teams comprised of six players. During our two seasons, the teams have included representatives from four local day schools. Various local businesses sponsor each team, as well as the league as a whole.
Rather than competing head to head, each team receives a weekly chesed assignment and aims to attain 20 points — which represents a “win.” A team receives 15 points for successfully completing its designated team activity, while the remaining five points require individual team members to complete “smaller” chesed activities on their own time. Examples of the team activities include visiting local nursing homes, helping Hatzalah of Baltimore wash their ambulances, supporting activities for residents of Jewish Community Services group homes, or collecting trash in a local Jewish cemetery. The smaller, individual activities might include collecting siddurim [prayer books] in shul, assisting an elderly person with their groceries, or shoveling the sidewalk of a neighbor.
Each team runs under the supervision of one or two coaches. The coaches represent a key aspect of the BCL experience. Not only do coaches facilitate transportation to each event and provide adult supervision, they also serve as a mentor to the boys and provide guidance — especially with activities that some boys might find less comfortable. The quality and leadership of each coach is integral to his team’s success, and we are careful to include top quality coaches who demonstrate commitment to the league mission and their team.
If a team attains a “win,” they become eligible for incentives provided by the league. Incentives for wins include team meals at Mama Leah’s Pizza and Dougie’s BBQ & Grill, a bowling outing, and an end-of-year banquet at Suburban Orthodox.
How has the league grown in its second year?
Thankfully, as we now complete our second season, we have more than doubled our participation from 30 to 78 participants. We have also increased our participation with local organizations, adding more than 40 new activities to our schedule. We consistently receive very positive feedback from parents, the organizations with whom we work, and the local schools.
We are a fully volunteer project right now and we recently received a Jewish Baltimore Innovative Grant from the Associated, which will help us with funding, in addition to our team and league sponsors. All of our success is due to the amazing work of our talented and committed BCL committee, which currently includes Zevi Daniel, Naftali Langer, Shmuel Fischler, Yossi Ziffer, Yaakov Lichter, Yakov Preiserowicz, and myself.
What plans or visions do you have for the future?
We’re always looking for opportunities to grow, and assuming we can implement the infrastructure to do so, we hope to continue to expand in future seasons.
We are also interested in creating a girls’ division and have begun discussions with some community mothers who have expressed an interest in taking the lead on that initiative. In addition, although the Chesed League concept originated in Baltimore, we would love to see it replicated in other communities. We would be more than happy to share our experiences, lessons learned, and suggestions with any other communities that are interested in launching a similar program.
If you’d like to learn more about the Baltimore Chesed League and connect with them, you can visit their website: www.baltimorechesedleague.com as well as visit them on Facebook.